High life | 24 January 2019

High life | 24 January 2019
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Asked how he was feeling as he was about to give a speech to a ladies group, Mark Twain, looking stricken, is supposed to have said: ‘How do you expect me to feel? Shakespeare is dead, Goethe is dead, and I have a terrible cold.’Alas, I’m no Twain, but I feel worse than the Mississippi sage ever did — that I’m sure of. Going cross-country skiing underdressed in bone-chilling temperatures didn’t help. I now sneeze about 150 times a day, I’m aching all over, my nose is running as if I had shoved two ounces of Peruvian pure up it, and my head feels as though it is stuffed with poisoned marshmallows.

So, last Sunday, unable to read, I decided to improve my mind by watching television, the invention that has made western man a superior human being. Believe it or not, the horrible device brought back some very pleasant memories: 4, 6 and 7 May 1967, to be exact. I went to the guest loo to check the date and have a look at the picture hanging on the wall. There we were, the four of us, in our blazers and tennis shorts, under the heading Coupe Davis, and beneath our picture in enlarged letters: Suisse–Grèce, Parc des Eaux Vives, Genève.

The reason for this trip to yesteryear was the Australian Open Federer–Tsitsipas match late last Saturday, one that the Greek won in four sets to cause one of the greatest upsets in tennis. I watched the whole four hours, something I have never done before, not even when I was on the tour and friends were playing.

Which makes it 52 years since a Greek beat a Swiss in tennis, although the 1967 Greek triumph was not exactly kosher. Three of us on the Davis Cup team had developed our tennis skills abroad, and the star of the Swiss team was a Romanian prince, Tim Sturdza, who was a better prince than he was player. My doubles partner, Nico Kalogeropoulos, won both the French and Wimbledon junior titles in 1963, and he and I won the Greek national doubles title regularly. Nico also got to the last 16 at Wimbledon once, losing to Fred Stolle, a finalist that year.

The Swiss back then were not exactly dangerous, although Tim the prince was angry at Nico and myself for bird-dogging his girl, a German player on the circuit who I choose not to name. I, of course, managed to lose in five sets to Matthias Werren, but Nicky won both his singles and the doubles with a new partner because I had been ruled ineligible by the captain, one Mr Alepoudelis. Alepoudelis, which means tiny fox, knew as much about tennis as I know about coprophaghia, but he was nevertheless named captain because he had a factory that made soap in Athens. His brother, a poet, won the Nobel Prize for literature about ten years later, under the pseudonym Odysseus Elytis. (Check it out.)

I had broken bounds earlier and gone to the Bataclan, a notorious Lausanne nightclub, and had bragged about it to the team. That was enough for the little fox. He kept me out of the doubles and scuppered my chance to play against Tim Sturdza who was badmouthing me over the girl. The prince at present has a very successful brokerage house in Geneva offering all sorts of profitable funds to the public, but I’m too scared to go near it. Romantics tend to hold a grudge. Nico and I ran into the lady player 25 years ago in a veterans’ tournament and were aghast at how badly she had aged. Tennis does not do wonders for a woman’s skin or shape in later life. Try swimming, girls.

I know nothing about Tsitsipas except that he was born in Greece and grew up there. His mother is Russian, hence his 6ft 4in height and blond hair. What I loved about the match was the free-flowing hitting by both players and their one-handed backhands. Tsitsipas mirrors Federer, but — you’ll have to trust me on this — Roger looked like a loser after winning the first set on a tie break. Twelve chances for a break in the second were saved by the Greek, which means that the great Roger was tightening up. At one set apiece, Federer looked mentally tired. What mentally tired means in tennis is that you make the wrong choice of shot. You try to end the point early, or play safe.

The Greek began hitting all out once he had taken the lead. That’s what champs do; suckers play it safe. And Roger began to look at his feet between points, another bad sign. It was a great victory for a 20-year-old who will go places. But I felt bad for the greatest of them all. His elegant and impeccable strokes, his manners on court — he doesn’t groan like a wounded animal every time he makes contact with a ball — and his sportsmanship will never be topped. I only hope that someone will try to imitate him. But Roger should call it a day. Or play only the best of three.

My three tennis heroes are Gottfried von Cramm, Roy Emerson and Roger Federer. All three are pure, clean hitters with impeccable manners. One last piece of advice for Roger, however unsolicited: keep Anna Wintour out of your box. Every time she visits, you blow a lead. She’s very bad luck.