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17 July 2019

When did tennis commentary become so insipid?

By Antonia Quirke

“And that, for your enjoyment, was Ravs the rapping tennis coach.” During a lull in the build-up to the Wimbledon men’s final (14 July, 1pm) between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, commentator Gigi Salmon endured the latest analysis from the laboriously rhyming Ravs. The likeable Gigi can never wholly hide her displeasure when it comes to Ravs: “We’re going to get stuck into the numbers,” she promised, hurrying on, shifting her gaze across Centre Court. “Fans are basically taking photos of the grass; it looks immaculate.”

Ah, the sentimentality of the Wimbledon final attendee, their hearts moved by the dappled grass and the player who most transcends the game. Reporters in the crowd found it tough to find a Djokovic fan. “My tactic is to look to the youth,” admitted one, introducing a teenager from Oakwood Tennis Club (who still preferred Federer). At Wimbledon the keynote will always be Old Times, something reflected in the commentary, which can sound like light perpetually fading on a summer’s day.  

Pat Cash was on hand to lift the lid on those moments before playing in a men’s final: “Nerve-wracking actually, I’ve gotta be honest.” So too was fellow former Wimbledon champion, Richard Krajicek. “If Fed strikes the ball extremely well: good.” Indeed, but what’s actually going to happen Richard? “Tough call. Roger is always very high… But so is Novak.” Greg Rusedski agreed that Novak was always very high… but so was Roger. “Fed and Novak have been playing for so many years,” he observed. “They’re both so, so good.”

Oddly, all this thoroughly going-nowhere stuff turned out to set the tone perfectly for what followed: the longest men’s final in Wimbledon history. I couldn’t help wishing the players had ignored the new tiebreak rule (that declares all contests are decided by final-set tiebreaks, should the score reach 12-12) and carried on. Over the radio, the abruptness and drop in crucial intensity that attended the rule was stark. It was imposed to prevent what exactly? Nobody said it, but it was all the while implied, as the jejune commentary unfurled: to prevent the rare occurrence of the marathon fifth set, that is always the highlight of Wimbledon.

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This article appears in the 17 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer