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Last Updated: Friday, 13 July 2007, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
The champion talkers
By Clive James

There was some good to come out of the rainy spells at Wimbledon - the chance for former champs like John McEnroe to demonstrate he can talk as well as he played.

John McEnroe
Master of the microphone
As yet another Wimbledon fortnight drains away into history, let us contemplate the flood damage and try to draw some useful lessons.

I leave aside such questions as: why is either of Rafael Nadal's upper arms thicker than Tim Henman's neck?

I'm being positive in this series and I want to look on the bright side, which was briefly visible on the final Sunday when Nadal and Federer miraculously encountered no moisture except their own perspiration for the length of an entire match.

But it's the invisible bright side that I want to look at now. I mean the commentary. Once again, the Wimbledon television commentary hit its peak on those days when there was no tennis at all and you were regaled with long stretches of American ex-champions talking. John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova are so interesting when they talk about tennis that they scarcely need to be accompanied by an actual match.

Clive James
Even Tracey Austin, still a slip of a thing, can dish out her fund of knowledge like Aristotle

Admittedly things on the commentary front were rather spoiled on the last day when the mind-bending struggle between Nadal and Federer was accompanied by the voices of John Lloyd and Jimmy Connors. Connors is another American ex-champion and like the rest of them he is full of real information, but he also suffers from an excess of good manners by which he feels it incumbent upon him to ask John Lloyd for an expert opinion.

John Lloyd is indeed an expert. Like the other high-profile British commentator Sue Barker he is no stranger to Centre Court. But also like her, he is a stranger to actually winning the championship, which Connors did twice. As I remember it, Connors was thoroughly obnoxious in his behaviour while doing so, but nowadays, as an elder statesman, he has acquired humility.

It isn't humility that we want in a commentator. We want the confidence of distilled wisdom, and for the other American commentating ex-champs we get it. Even Tracy Austin, still a slip of a thing, can dish out her fund of knowledge like Aristotle.

And there lies my theme: the wisdom of the great sportsmen, and how, if they can express what they know, they can tell us about life in general as well as their sport in particular. The Wisdom of Wimbledon, starring Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe. It could be a book. It wouldn't even have to be a picture book, which is lucky, because a lot of the pictures would be of the covers getting dragged on only minutes after they had been dragged off.

David Vine at Wimbledon in 1967
Televised tennis has evolved

Let's begin in brief with McEnroe, so we can finish by praising Navratilova at length. McEnroe is so far and away the supreme male Wimbledon commentator that the TV camera snatches pictures of him when we aren't allowed to hear his voice. On the final day, as always, he was commentating for American television, but our camera snuck shots of him through the front window of the commentary box, so that we could see his mouth move.

Almost certainly it was saying something fascinating. When Federer had that uncharacteristic mental excursion in the fourth set and tried to convince himself that the Hawkeye replay must be wrong, was McEnroe saying, as Federer mopped his boiling head with a towel, that Federer would be better off if he let all his anger out in one go?

That's exactly what we heard Connors say, and it's exactly what Connors used to do, but not even Connors did it on the Krakatoa scale of McEnroe. It would have been valuable to have McEnroe's opinion.

As things were, we got his opinion mainly on days when there was no tennis at all, owing to that intermittent Wimbledon drizzle which would be put down to climate change if it was ever any different.

'A step slow'

But his comments, as always, were nearly as good as watching him play used to be, and a lot quieter. He has become a philosopher. You can put inverted commas around the word if you like, but so many of the phrases we now use when we talk about tennis were invented by him.

McEnroe was the first commentator ever to say that a certain champion would soon be a step slow. It was his way of saying that the champion, although he could still hit everything, was a tenth of a second slower at getting into position to hit it.

Martina wasn't even born American, but she realised that mastering the local language would be part of the job, and she did it the way she did everything else, thoroughly
Ever since I head McEnroe first use that phrase in a Wimbledon commentary, I have used it myself to describe the erosion of my own faculties and capacities, although "a step slow" often demands to be modified. "Ten yards slow?" "A mile slow?"

However you phrase it, the idea enshrines a central and sad truth about physical achievement at high level. It depends on the body. When McEnroe, his stomach still flat and his formidable mouth only at the beginning of its development curve, found that he was moving a step slow, he transferred to the seniors. There's a lesson there. Be the first to decide that you've been up there too long.

Which brings us to Martina, who was up there for a generation, still collecting doubles titles after she grew a step too slow for the singles. But she knew how to quit when the day came, because there's nothing she doesn't know about the sport she dominated. Billie-Jean King dominated it before her, and Billie-Jean is another inspiring case of what brains can do for a sportsman.

On one drenched day of the tournament just past, Billie-Jean and Martina were both giving us their opinions to fill up the time until the All England Club gets its roof built, and to hear them talk was a reminder of what Virginia Wade was once up against, because Virginia had nothing to back her up except the British press, whereas the American women had the whole American culture of unblushing self-belief to drive them forward.


Unblushing and articulate. Martina wasn't even born American, but she realised that mastering the local language would be part of the job, and she did it the way she did everything else, thoroughly. In fact she did it to the point where you could take the inverted commas off the word "philosopher" and simply admit that any analytical statement she made was worth writing down.

After one of her countless Wimbledon victories, she once answered a not very interesting question with a very interesting answer. "What matters isn't how well you play when you're playing well. What matters is how well you play when you're playing badly."

Martina Navratilova
Champion philosopher
I wrote that down at the time and still haven't seen a neater way of expressing the truth that a high average is what counts. At this Wimbledon she was easily the sanest voice in the perpetual discussion about whether Maria Sharapova should be allowed to grunt so loudly.

In case you haven't heard her in action, Sharapova, when she hits the ball, makes the same sort of sound as young adolescent males make when they first see her stretching up to serve. Some journalists describe the noise she makes as orgasmic but they must be very lucky in their love lives.

The noise has an element of agony, and often there is a matching reaction on the face of her opponent. Should she be allowed to do it?

Martina settled the matter in a way that you and I couldn't, because we haven't played in a grand slam final. When one player grunts, she said, the other player can't hear the racket hit the ball, and is thus deprived of a vital item of information about how the ball will behave next.

In other words, the grunter is taking an unfair advantage. When it was put to her that some people might not be able to help grunting, Martina pointed out that if Federer didn't have to grunt, then nobody did.

And indeed Federer doesn't grunt. I hadn't noticed, so common has grunting become. For too long I have been buying the notion that some players have to. Connors certainly grunted, to the point that Bjorn Borg started to grunt back. And Monica Seles, cruelly deprived by a madman of her good chance to be up there in the all-time rankings with Billie-Jean and Marina, was the first big grunter in the women's game. But Federer doesn't grunt, so nobody needs to. The case is closed.


Finally, as Martina said, it's a matter of fairness. For years now we have lived in an era when fairness needs to be explained, and indeed there was something stuffy about the time when everybody took it for granted. You could just about say that men's tennis took a step up when McEnroe first yelled at a Wimbledon umpire, although it isn't only the Aussies who think that there was never such a thing as a step up from Rod Laver, who would have rather died than yell at anybody.

But sport without sportsmanship is indeed a dreary prospect. Perhaps sick of losing, the rest of us tend to call such ruthlessness the American approach. But it isn't fair to say so. Martina Navratilova is all-American except for her birth, and even McEnroe, in the heyday of his apoplexy, knew that the rules of behaviour were there, even when he was testing them to the limit. The champions give it everything, and if they are gifted as well with the ability to speak, they can tell us a lot about life.

Or else they can be like Borg, who was there on the last day and said nothing. Which tells you something too.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Agreed that McEnroe and Navratilova are the best but don't forget that Sue Barker won the French Open so has experience of winning a major. Tracey Austin, did not win Wimbledon either, but won the US Open twice.
Peter Barton, Ulverston, UK

It has put into words what I have felt for a long ime. I cannnot help but have the greatest respect for both Martina and John. Martina is a class above everyone else. Commentary should be all about the wisdom that comes from a combination of intelligence and experience at the top level. It helps too when it is attached to a game that combines athletic skill, concentration and intelligence. As a result, I feel that the best commentary moments come from the sports of cricket, golf and tennis.
Alasdair Munn, Malvern UK

I agree on McEnroe but not Navratilova. The Federer / grunting argument makes no sense whatsoever. Of course Federer doesn't need to grunt. His technical gifts are sublime. Other players, trying desperately with every fibre to keep up with him, may find themselves grunting as part of the sheer physical effort required to do so.
Gavin Winton, London

You hit the nail on the head as usual. I once heard Martina give the best and simplest dietary advice ever. She was invited to explain how she maintained her super fitness especially as she got older. She said that most of the trick was not eating too much, so you did not have to excercise just to control your weight. Next question?
Colin, Aberdeen

completely agree about standard of comment from the champs as being outstanding. Clive may like to know that I heard Connors say on a biog programme that the greatest thing was playing and winning and the next best was playing and losing.I was both surprised and pleased to hear him say that. He didnt look like he gave losing much of a thought when he was playing but i think Kipling would have approved.Iwonder if John Mac feels the same way.
nick reaney, sheffield england

Fundamentally, tennis competitions exist to provide entertainment to spectators. If this were not the case, matches to establish who was the best in the world would be conducted in private for modest prize money. Therefore, if spectators would rather watch matches without excessive grunting it should be prohibited by the rules. Why should those players that exercize vocal restraint be put at a disadvantage.
Steve, Cambridge

I think what we are missing here is the fact that these commentators so like the sound of their own voices that they completely mask the nuances of the game which are (or should be) apparent to those fans who are watching. I for one, switch off the sound when these narcissistic people are rabbeting away. Are they paid by the word??
Anton Tucker, Bridgewater NJ USA

I agree with Clive James that there are a few sportsmen and I refer to tennis in particular who can 'talk the talk' as well as 'walk the walk' and I totally agree that John McEnroe is a master in his field of tennis as is Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin. In fact Americans seem to be the most talented commentators, specially those who are ex champions or ex top level players. However I cannot say this about the Brits, who are boring and give uninformative, annoying chatter during Wimbledon. I wonder what qualifies them to sit alongside McEnroe and Connors. Those who interview are just as bad. John Inverdale in particular is the worst as far as talking tennis to the champions and ex champions, and Sue Barker may have played but what qualifies her to be either a Wimbledon host or sports quiz show host? Greg Rusedski is promising to be quite a good commentator and better than any ! of the Brits so far. Annabelle Frost is another hopeless presenter and Peter Fleming has a very stiff cold manner in delivering his tennis opinions on her show even if he was doubles partner to McEnroe. They should take a leaf out of football presenters like Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen and others who are masters at presenting and interviewing in the field of soccer in the UK.
Carmen Castillo, London, England

I was very impressed with the commentry of John McEnroe he does that job brillantly almost as good as he played tennis. Sue Barker was brillant and I hope she does not fall for the ageism policy at the BBC. Becaue she would be a big lost. As for John LLoyd what an insult to Boris Becker to give him the final job instead of Boris (at least he knows something about winning more than john lloyd.) I thought Andrew Castle was very good as well. But the best highlights of this year was listening to John McEnroe and Billy Jean King. Please carry on next year.
gail partin, luton

A fine analysis with good observations by CJ. What he doesn't say but hints at is that John McEnroe did his bit to help erode some of the pompous class prejudice in this country.
Paul Henry, Lancaster

John McEnroe's Wimbledon commentaries and summaries are as entertaining to listen to as his tennis was to watch. His lucid and fluent style is interesting and thought provoking. He doesn┐t hold back and tells it like it is. Very refreshing in the sycophantic celebrity worshipping times we┐re living in. It┐s a shame we only hear his opinions during Wimbledon fortnight!
Trevor Jones, Braintree, Essex, England

I am writing to say that I totally agree with Clive's point of view. I look forward to Wimbledon every year but even more so now that John McEnroe is one of the commentators. I have been a big fan of John ever since he came on tennis scene. As a player John had such passion for the game and I believe that's what made him a joy to watch. Still now for me one of the best matches ever was the Wimbledon final between John and (Boring) Borg back in 1980. That passion is still with him of course and it enables him to comment on tennis in the same brilliant way he played it. As Clive says, both he and Martina Navratilova bring such a wealth of knowledge that you'd be content just listening to them without even watching a match!
Karen Jackson, Beckenham, Kent

Michael Johnson, how the BBC persuaded him to commentate for them and not the US networks is as big a mystery as it was a joy. Telling it with supreme authority and without rhetoric. A superb commentator.
Paul Clifford, Jersey


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