The science of tennis grunts

The cancellation of Wimbledon this summer deprived fans of their annual exercise in moralising. There is one topic SW19-goers love to complain about every year: the grunting sounds that players emit as they hit the tennis ball. Maria Sharapova, who retired in February, was called the Queen of Screams. Her grunts were once recorded at 101 decibels, more than a Boeing 707 as it touches down. They even inspired a series of ringtones. ‘I’ve done this ever since I started playing tennis and I’m not going to change,’ Sharapova once said. Yet her grunts were said to be mysteriously absent on the practice court. Grunting can give players a tactical

I went to hell and back to meet my new granddaughter

Wolfsegg, Austria I have finally understood what’s wrong with the modern world: motorways. These dehumanising slabs of asphalt covering our continents are Prometheus-like chains that lure us into non-stop movement and uniformity. But before you start screaming that you’ve been isolated for months and would give up a night with Jennifer Lawrence to roar down a highway, let me explain. It all began when Alexandra and I decided to visit my daughter and the new baby in Austria. It was my idea to drive there, the Swiss-German-Austrian borders having opened that very day. When the wife suggested a chauffeur, I said no. When the son assured me that I’d get

Croquet is the perfect sport for social distancing

In Mr Alton’s absence, I thought readers might want a column about sport. The problem is that I’m largely indifferent to most sports. But I will berate the All England Club for cancelling the Wimbledon Championship. Fair enough, I can see that tennis might be a problem what with all the loud, virus-spreading grunting, but I think it’s time we reminded them they are the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Shockingly, last time I went there on a corporate jag, I could see no evidence of the superior game being played. Yet croquet is a game where social distancing poses no problems. If you sold the rights to

How tennis went socialist

Desperately boring times but very healthy ones. No parties, no girls, not too much boozing, lots of smoking and reading very late into the night. And non-stop training and sport. What else can one do when locked in with one’s wife and one’s son and with nostalgic thoughts of a time when people gathered in groups? It seems very long ago but do any of you remember when people gave parties? Desperate times demand desperate measures and make for desperate columnists. Meditation might be good for philosophers and their ilk, but correspondents need to get out and get the story. The only thing to report nowadays are the sleeping habits

Rocket’s science

A chum was in Waitrose a year or two back, and was bending down with some difficulty to look at the sandwiches when he realised the sprightly elderly chap next to him, eyeing up the cheese and celery, looked very familiar. It was the greatest tennis player of all time, the one and only Rod Laver, the Rockhampton Rocket himself. They had a pleasant chat, for the Rocket is nothing if not affable, and Laver agreed to call my pal’s tennis coach and say: ‘Hi, it’s Rod Laver here.’ The coach didn’t believe him, of course, but it was true. When you saw the ecstatic reaction of Centre Court last

High life | 11 July 2019

Martina Navratilova has never been shy about telling it like it is. She came out when other athletes were hiding in their lockers, and recently spoke out against men transitioning into women in order to cash in at women’s events. She is brave and refuses to be intimidated. Last week, while the centre court crowd was going wild cheering for Coco Gauff, Martina was the only commentator to question the fairness of it: ‘I wonder how Hercog must feel having 15,000 people hate you and cheer your every mistake to the rafters?’ Mind you, sportsmanship is a thing of the past, and Wimbledon crowds now act like football fans. Coco

High life | 13 June 2019

A lady once offered to go to bed with me if I could ensure that she would write The Spectator’s Diary. This was some time ago, but what I clearly recall is that I didn’t even try. To help her land the Diary, that is. I don’t wish to start any guessing games among the beautiful ‘gels’ that put out the world’s best weekly, but to my surprise that particular lady did get her wish some time after, with no help from yours truly. (What I can tell you is that all this did not happen under the present sainted editor’s watch.) I was thinking of the Diary as I

High life | 24 January 2019

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

High life | 13 September 2018

A letter from a reader in South Africa mentions that the writer’s father insisted a white dinner jacket was permissible only in Palm Beach, Biarritz or on the Riviera. I agree and stand corrected, having worn one at the Duke of Beaufort’s bash in July. A heatwave is my excuse. England was a frying pan, I was planning to drink it up, and a new Anderson & Sheppard dinner jacket was hanging Circe-like in my closet. The letter also said that if the Duke is a rock star, as I described him in my July column, then all is forgiven. My South African correspondent would have got a surprise had

Real life | 3 May 2018

Because my mother is always telling me everything will be all right if I join a tennis club, I’ve joined a tennis club. In fact, I haven’t joined a tennis club so much as joined a group of women with a tennis coach who meet once a week for instruction at a court in Surbiton. A friend of mine is a member of this group and kindly agreed to take me. I borrowed a spare racket of hers and dusted off some dusky pink Lycra hot pants left over from my flirtation with hot yoga. As we gathered on the sunny court down an alleyway between two houses in a

Toby Young: Unmanned by a brute in bright pink

As regular readers will know, Caroline has developed a fanatical interest in tennis and is currently captain of the ladies second team at the local sports club. I have written before about how her new-found passion has turned me into a tennis widower — she is out two or three nights a week during the high season — but I thought that was the extent of its impact on our marriage. Turns out I was wrong. The nights she spends at home with me watching television are even more emasculating than the nights she spends out. Why do I say this? Because the only thing she wants to watch is

Ladies first

Battle of the Sexes recreates the famed, culture-changing 1973 tennis match between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, a self-proclaimed chauvinist, and 29-year-old Billie Jean King, the world’s top female player who was out to liberate women and herself. (She was just discovering her true sexuality at that time.) Unless you happen to identify with Bobby — ‘Don’t get me wrong. I love women in the bedroom and in the kitchen, but these days they want to be everywhere!’ — this is certainly a great comeuppance film of the kind that will amply satisfy all your comeuppance needs. No complaints, comeuppance-wise. But it doesn’t run very deep, divides everyone into heroes and villains,

No balls

Borg vs McEnroe is a dramatised account of one of the greatest tennis rivalries of all time — between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe (the clue was always in the title) — that doesn’t hit nearly as hard as it should. It does the job. It gets us from A to B. But it doesn’t dazzle. It doesn’t have the dramatic smarts to lend either surprising tension or excitement to otherwise familiar events, or shed any new light on them. It’s more the pt-pt-pt-pt of a stolid baseline rally and now, you will be thankful to hear, that’s it with the tennis puns. (I only had two anyhow.) The film

My wife’s revenge has me at break point

Fifteen years ago, when I was The Spectator’s drama critic, Caroline used to complain that she had become a ‘theatre widow’. I was spending at least three nights a week in the West End while she was cooped up at home. Occasionally, I was able to persuade her to come with me, but most of the time she just made a face: ‘I’d love to accompany you to the musical version of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but unfortunately I have an unbreakable appointment with the sofa and the TV set.’ Well, she has her revenge. Caroline is captain of the Park Club Ladies Second Team and if she hasn’t got

Always the Superbrat

John McEnroe’s father calls. In fact, he calls McEnroe’s manager’s phone, presumably because dad doesn’t have a direct line to the great man himself. John Sr, who is tennis-mad, has a request: can he come with his son to a veterans’ tournament in Belgium? McEnroe is horrified. Having dad around is a major drag. ‘I was about to say absolutely not,’ he writes — when his old rival Björn Borg, who happens to be dining with him, interjects: ‘Let me speak to him.’ Borg, who had lost his own father three years earlier, tells McEnroe Sr: ‘Don’t worry, JP, if John doesn’t bring you to Knokke-Heist, I will.’ The story

Match made in heaven | 6 July 2017

Tennis is best played with a wooden racket on a shady lawn somewhere close to Dorking. There is no need for trainers, an umpire, or a scoreboard. No need for rules at all. After Wimbledon, the tea-and-jam, grass-stained, Sunday-afternoon scenario from A Room with a View is the only one to emulate. In 1908, when E.M. Forster published his novel, lawn tennis was not yet 50 years old. Although the origins of the game reach back to the 12th century, the version played by Miss Honeychurch and Reverend Beebe and most of us today was said to have been pioneered on a croquet lawn in Edgbaston in 1859. It was

Andy’s ace

Who will you cheer for if Andy Murray meets Roger Federer at Wimbledon? It’s not a straightforward question, at least not for the English. The loveliness of Rodge and the awkwardness of Andy — however British — makes for a difficult and revealing choice. Different if you happen to be Scottish. I remember a conversation in the gents at Melbourne in 2010. Two Scots, companionably pissing side by side, were loudly discussing the final of the Australian Open just completed. An Englishwoman alongside them in the stands had been cheering Federer, the straight-sets winner, rather than Murray. ‘She was everything I was brought up to hate.’ But Murray was never

Metal fatigue in the golden generation

Not a bad week for Roger Federer then: first pootling along being cool and rich in a morning suit at the Philippa Middleton wedding, then being named in the world’s tennis top five again, with his increasingly elderly chums. It’s the first time all five (Murray, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and ‘Stan the Man’ Wawrinka) have been over 30. Indeed, the only player born in the 1990s to reach a grand slam final is Milos Raonic; no spring chicken at 27. This is an astonishing time in tennis; a golden generation indeed. We have come a long way since Lleyton Hewitt beat David Nalbandian 3-0 to win Wimbledon. Nalbandian won just

The age of Joshua

Every so often comes a moment that can set the history of sport on a different trajectory. I believe we will witness such a moment on Saturday when Anthony Joshua, of Golders Green no less, fights the veteran Wladimir Klitschko for the Heavy-weight Champ-ionship of the World. At Wembley Stadium, not a Las Vegas car park. This is a battle of the ages and for the ages, and it is right here in London. For those of us who were glued to barely audible radios at 3am to hear epic US fights or flogged around seedy London cinemas for a live transmission, the romance, the magic and the brutal beauty

High life | 30 March 2017

 Gstaad It’s my last week in the Alps, and the snow is gone, replaced by brilliant sunshine. Silence reigns, broken only by the occasional clear, sharp wind. The town is now empty and clean, and the air bracing. I love the village out of season, when the shoppers have finally gone and the locals are preparing to release the cows into the mountains. Training at altitude will make it easy to go at it hard once I am back in the city — at least for a week or two. There is nothing like a three-month Alpine break for the old ticker. Dinner parties out of season are very gay