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Why Wimbledon is made for radio

I thought I had to see tennis to believe it – but BBC Radio 5 Live’s commentary has transported me to Centre Court.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Tennis has never struck me as a sport well-suited to radio. Remember in Willy Russell’s 1980 play Educating Rita when the heroine is asked how one might go about resolving the staging difficulties of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and responds simply, “Do it on the radio”? Tennis is like the opposite of that. It’s a game where precision really counts. Was that ball out or did it just clip the line? Look at the spin on that drop shot! Break point: can you sense the tension in body language as one of the top seeds realises he’s in trouble? To fully grasp the highs and lows, you have to see it.

Or so I always thought – until recently, when I was struck down by some horrific summer virus that rendered me incapable of getting out of bed or even really opening my eyes. So in the hours between painkiller-induced naps, when the world felt woozy and not quite real, I turned to BBC Radio 5 Live’s Wimbledon commentary. And it is a godsend. It’s not just the soothing, familiar voices of the commentators – although Gigi Salmon and Clare McDonnell both have the kind calm yet focused intonation that is instantly reassuring. They’re also, it turns out, superb at conveying all the visual drama of the court in audio format.

It’s not just an acceptable substitute for television; in some ways, it’s actually better. There’s an intimacy to radio which, if you listen long enough to get into the rhythm, can transport you to Centre Court far more intensely than the bird’s-eye cameras on BBC Two. And the superhuman speed with which the team describe what’s happening – “good first serve, backhand return, then forehand cross-court, wrong-footing her opponent who chops one into the net” – is exhilarating. “With radio, you’re the eyes of the listener, so you’re having to describe absolutely everything,” Salmon says in her commentary tips. “Really paint that picture to your full capabilities.”

Far from missing out, I feel I’ve experienced more of Wimbledon this year than ever before.

BBC Radio 5 Live

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[See also: First we canonised Emma Raducanu – then we hounded her off the tennis court]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation