When I was growing up I wanted to be the American tennis champion Jimmy Connors. To be honest, I wanted to be sweary, stroppy, petulant John McEnroe (which I kind of was anyway) but my mum preferred his more charming, coiffured rival so Jimmy it was.
Anyway I saw a quote recently attributed to Jimmy in which he described the kind of attitude to tennis we have in the UK compared to his homeland: 'New Yorkers love it when you spill your guts out there. Spill your guts at Wimbledon and they make you stop and clean it up.'
I'm not quite sure whether he was being witty or rudely dismissive - he often wavered between the two. But he's right. There is a certain decorum at Wimbledon - something we treasure. Matters in SW19 are conducted in the 'right manner', there are codes that are rigidly enforced, when you walk on to the immaculate green grass you are somehow representing the soul of the sport.
Brash is bad. Loud is banned. Rebellion is out.
Rules, you see. That's what tennis is really all about. And that's why, despite the tens of millions of pounds pumped into British tennis, there are no new Andy Murrays on the horizon and only 700,000 or so proper players in this country. Hamstrung by our determination to keep tennis for an elite who can barely play it properly, the sport in Britain is in crisis because it is too codified and tame. And I know that because I just tried to join my local club.
It boasts three beautiful grass courts, several hard and a few astro with floodlights. They are hardly ever used. So I thought I'd pop along on 'club night' to get a better feel of things. Some welcomed me, others were a little suspicious, perhaps because of my age. At 47 I was by far the youngest there. The club chairman was there as was the deputy, the treasurer, the membership secretary, someone I recognised from the papers and two titled ladies. They had set the club up, they told me, because they hadn't like the elitism of the last one.
Anyway, if I wanted to join and use the courts that were - they admitted - nearly always vacant, I'd need to pay close to £200 a year and could only bring a guest three times a year. I couldn't play before 9am, I'd have to adhere to the dress code, I would need to be interviewed by the club secretary and I would need to peruse the rule book before I joined. Hopefully, I could also invite more people 'my age' to join because it would 'jolly well liven things up'.
In truth, this was the third club I'd looked at around West London and each one was pretty similar. It's not the snobbishness that most upsets me, it's the sheer waste of fantastic facilities that we have in this country. Tennis is a sport for those with money - just the other week a survey revealed that it costs more than £1m to turn a child into a champion - and those without money are excluded. Intimidated even.
It's not just private clubs. Municipal courts - of which there are hundreds - are in such a parlous state as to be unrecognisable as proper tennis courts. Strewn with rubbish, carpeted in moss and used as makeshift basketball courts and dog toilets - and councils have the nerve to charge £10 an hour for the privilege to use them. £10 an hour! An entire day at Wimbledon is slightly more than double that. And if you try to sneak on without paying (and remember, they're hardly ever being used), you're liable to be fined £50. Which I'm sure the boss of British tennis could afford, on his £434,000 annual salary.
There are occasional ventures that try to encourage rather than discourage. The Great British Tennis Weekend, for instance, sees private clubs across the country open their doors for three - yes, three - weekends a year so that all those unfortunates peeking through the wire gates can get a taste of what it's all about. Except that the clubs tend to allow the great unwashed in only for an hour, while lunch is being served presumably.
No other sport, with the possible exception of golf, is treated as if it was a precious remnant of the British Empire - laden with rules, reassuringly expensive and to be enjoyed only by a certain type of person.
White, middle class and elitist. The clue's in the name of the governing body, LTA. Lawn Tennis Association. Lawn?! Gentility does not breed champions - Connors and McEnroe were proof of that - but it does mean wonderful cucumber sandwiches.Suggest a correction