James Allan’s notes last week about unenviable aspects of Australian tennis certainly struck a chord with me.
When in Sydney, I walk my dog regularly past tennis courts at which I witness superb coaching taking place involving not just teenagers but small children of both sexes. If such teaching excellence were widely replicated elsewhere, our tennis future would seem to be in very good hands – but there is rather more to top-level tennis of course than simply hitting the ball. Before coming to Australia I was a member for years of Queen’s Club in London where a famous pre-Wimbledon tournament takes place each year.
Luckily for me, my entry to that club was aided significantly by a remarkable man: the late Andras Kalman whose compact and fairly slight build gave little hint of his quality as a player. Andras was a professional footballer in fact when he was sent to England from his parental home in Budapest just days before the outbreak of the Second World War. He never saw his parents or other members of his Jewish family again because all of them perished during the war years in Hungary. From a base near Manchester, Andras subsequently taught tennis 70 hours a week, and in his ‘spare’ time paid someone to teach him ‘the art gallery business’. In post-war Britain he took a set off Sedgman the year the latter won Wimbledon and made his own mark too in the Wimbledon doubles. In days when I played regularly with him he even won the annual over-60s championship at Queen’s while recovering from a quadruple heart bypass. That was the sort of gritty human being he was – and marvellously witty to boot. On court he was not just extremely clever but the possessor of an indomitable spirit and should thus be an absolute model for over-paid and over-indulged Australian players who let not just themselves but our whole country down all too regularly. Andras also founded one of the more original art galleries in Europe where the careers of forgotten artists of great quality were regularly revived: Crane Kalman Gallery near Brompton Oratory in London. He was a close friend of the late Lew Hoad whom I subsequently came to know at his tennis ranch in Spain. Ironically I suspect that the prize I received for winning a professional journalists’ tournament in Britain 30 years ago was probably worth more than Lew got for winning Wimbledon. Times certainly change – but in my experience much too rarely for the better. In a recent book I admit that my lifelong love of sport probably owes much ironically to attending a fairly typical English private boarding school of its day wherein it was considered almost better to die than lose to a rival local school at rugby – or even cricket. Indeed when a fellow tail-ender and I put together a most unlikely last-wicket stand to defeat local cricket rivals Brentwood our entire school was awarded a half-holiday. I had graduated to our very strong first XI at cricket at the tender age of fifteen and was both its smallest and youngest member as well as its fastest bowler. In my final year at school I was even chosen to play in what was a virtual trial for my county of birth, Kent, in a match which included a future England captain. Sadly my father failed to inform me because I was holidaying in France at the time and was thus virtually unreachable – no mobile phones in those far-off ‘primitive’ days of course.
But during the next 20 years I did manage to play – on special registration – for a trio of different Minor County sides. Such registrations were rare at the time except perhaps for a few itinerant West Indian professionals. Indeed, when warming up in the nets at Taunton for a match which included Ian Botham on the Somerset side I overheard someone ask another bystander who I was? On hearing my name the questioner expressed considerable surprise: ‘Giles Auty? I had always thought he was black.’ In days before political correctness blighted the lives of sportsmen – along with almost everyone else – I played a lot of club cricket with future West Indies star Gordon Greenidge. In those pre-correct days it was a regular cricketers’ joke to inquire, if the light became dim: ‘Give us a smile Gordon so we can see where you are’. Cricketers, like all other sensible people, were very much more robust in those days and Gordon was entirely capable of having a good laugh at us ‘whiteys’ himself. On a memorable occasion he and I attempted to break an existing record for two men pulling a ‘light’ iron roller around the entire perimeter of a sloping cricket ground – Lulworth Castle in Dorset – against the clock. After our narrowly unsuccessful but utterly gut-wrenching attempt Gordon retreated behind the pavilion where he vomited for some minutes before emerging absolutely ashen-faced to rejoin the rest of us. ‘I think that’s the nearest I’ll ever come to being a white man,’ he remarked to our relieved and appreciative applause.
I personally made more money from teaching squash professionally than from either cricket or tennis which were by far my better games; indeed in the days when I was a ‘full-time’ professional painter, teaching squash 15 or 20 hours a week effectively underwrote my whole career just as teaching tennis had basically underwritten the late Andras Kalman’s opening of a superb art gallery in Knightsbridge. Please don’t ask me to express an opinion on Australia’s current BB league. The game has no more connection with proper cricket than street-walking has with conventional marriage. Cricket bats were also much lighter in my many happy days of playing pre-helmet league and minor counties cricket – but quite a lot of us were hitters of big sixes nevertheless while even dressed conventionally and playing recognisably conventional cricket shots.