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14 July 2021

My sporting summer had all too short a lease, which is why I want my heroes to go on and on

We’re living in an age where some professional sports lives are freakishly extended – each game becoming an automatic exercise in nostalgia.

By Nicholas Lezard

I write this the morning after England beat Denmark. By now you’ll know whether we’ve beaten Italy or not, of course, but let’s just remember the good feelings from 7 July. I’m very glad England won, not just for the country’s sake, but for mine. I had been feeling melancholy all day, and then someone on a social media platform posted Gavin Ewart’s poem about a cat being granted one last summer (“I want him to have another living summer/To lie in the sun and enjoy the douceur de vivre”, etc) and that pretty much finished me off. 

It needed a bottle and a half of wine and an England victory to put the lead back in my pencil. (Brighton reacted with its typical sangfroid: the Western Road, our own tacky Sunset Strip, heaving with dancing fans, the road itself a parade of honking cars and bikes; good Lord, it was actually like Italy.)

But there’s still one sad thing that happened, not long before the match: Roger Federer got beaten in straight sets, the last one to love, at Wimbledon. That was distressing; and indeed I thought of Gavin Ewart’s cat, long in the tooth at 14, unable to move any more with grace and precision.

Tennis is in the blood, so to speak, of the Lezards. My great-uncle, Julien “Lizzie” Lezard – before he became, during the war, “the man who broke his back at Monte Carlo”, or, on his death, the subject of a piece in the Times by AJ Ayer, of all people – was in South Africa’s 1926 team for what is now the Davis Cup (his doubles partner, Patrick Spence, went on to win the mixed doubles at Wimbledon two years later). 

Slightly bathetically, his nephew, my father, displayed on our mantelpiece a tiny silver cup that attested to his having won Hampstead Cricket Club’s tennis tournament in (I think) 1962, the year before my birth. As I say, it was a very modest-looking thing; I suppose you could have fitted about 15 Maltesers into it if you piled them up carefully, but to a proud child’s eye it loomed as large as the FA Cup.

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[see also: The England team have exposed the lie of the government’s culture war]

No trace of tennis talent reached me. During the summer months, my friend Dom and I would go to the courts at Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley and play and play for hours until the light failed or it was time to go home for dinner. I never really got any good, but I didn’t mind too much, and I don’t recall ever feeling tired. My serve was feeble and my backhand worse; my racket had a normal-sized head but a shortened handle (I was an undersized kid). I never got my own full-sized racket, just as I didn’t own a full-sized cricket bat until I was in my forties – the cheapest one I could find at the Lord’s shop, one befitting my status (it was the brand Monty Panesar, England’s rabbit, used for a while). 

Always a borrowed racket for me, once I had reached my full height. When my mother-in-law, then pushing 60, beat me, then pushing 30, in straight sets at Harpenden Lawn Tennis Club, I decided that enough was enough, and I never played again.

But boy, did I watch it. I got very good at watching tennis – but Wimbledon only, because it was Wimbledon, it was the best, and for a couple of weeks each summer you could just turn the telly on and let it all wash over you while time outside stood still. And so Federer became a fixture. You don’t know that a player’s going to become a fixture until they do, and then you start becoming devoted to them, usually shortly before, if not at exactly the time, they become too old to play the game any more.

We’re living, though, in an age where some professional sports lives are freakishly extended: Federer, Serena Williams, even Andy Murray up to a point; in cricket, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad are making other fast bowlers look like mayflies. This, I think, is glorious, although it makes each game they play in an automatic exercise in nostalgia, which can’t be healthy. When I was a child it was a shock to realise that players reached the end of their useful lives, and that a team that seemed set in stone to the ten-year-old could be completely changed a few years later, like the ship of Theseus. Why, asked eight-year-old me, couldn’t the Arsenal double-winning team of 1971 remain unchanged forever?

I suppose that’s the real lesson of sport, especially at the national level. It’s a lesson every child learns eventually, just as their pets die, then their grandparents, and then their parents. And I think it’s important that these lessons are learned in summer (which is, just about, when the football season is decided too). Because summer in this country is all too short, as a famous poet once noticed. We all want one more, and for happiness in a bee-like swarm to settle on us, as Gavin Ewart wished for his cat.

[see also: Why Naomi Osaka’s French Open exit is a loss for the media, not just for tennis]

This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook