Most posh people think tennis is a marker of civilisation – I think it’s a menace (2024)

If I were a therapist, I’d suggest it started at school. Some girls arrived with titanium rackets in swish Wilson covers. Much like the kind of trainers you wore, your tennis racket was either a badge of honour or a source of shame at boarding school.

I don’t wish to sound like our Prime Minister and bleat on about how I didn’t have Sky TV as a child, but I rocked up with a wooden racket fished from a dusty old chest.

The girls with gleaming Wilson rackets seemed to have been playing since they could walk, with a natural athleticism that implied they had a tennis court at home. I could just about get the ball back over the net, but it wouldn’t necessarily be within any of the lines when it landed.

The less said about my serve the better. I was frequently picked last to make up foursomes in games lessons and spent much of my time mumbling ‘Sorry!’ as the ball soared over the fence and tumbled down the hill towards the lacrosse pitches below. Don’t get me started on lacrosse.

I felt an acute and continual sense of embarrassment throughout the summer terms because being bad at tennis was considered ‘uncool’, and vice versa. The only thing I liked about it, inevitably, was the tea afterwards.

My most shameful moment, perhaps still to this day, came one summer holiday when I was 15 and a friend invited me to stay in the Lake District, adding those three chilling little words: bring your racket.

They were a tennis-mad family and both daughters played for the first team at school. How would I get through the week without disgracing myself? A few days before leaving, unbeknownst to my mother, I went to the local chemist in my Scottish borders village and spent some of my allowance on a tubigrip.

This was smuggled into my suitcase and only extracted when safely alone on the bus to Penrith. ‘I’m so sorry I can’t play,’ I fibbed to my friend and her family when I arrived, demonstratively waving my right wrist in front of them. ‘I fell off a quad bike and sprained it.’

It strikes me now as the sort of thing you might hear someone muse in a documentary about a serial killer: ‘I did think it was a bit strange when she went on about her wrist and wore a bandage on it all week, but seemed to manage perfectly well when she was eating lunch.’

Still, I didn’t have to play once and sat merrily on the side of the court and kept score instead.

I suspect the kids these days would call it triggering, that creeping shame I feel at this time of year as people start talking about Queen’s and Wimbledon and players with unpronounceable names.

The flip of a white tennis skirt and glimpse of a grass court can induce a shudder, a terrific sense of insecurity, because tennis is one of those sports that certain people still bandy about as a mark of civilisation.

These people would be terrifically snotty if you started up a conversation about, for example, the Champion’s League during football season. Yet come summer we’re suddenly expected to know that a 19-year-old Croatian has just moved up three spots on the ATP ranking and Nadal has pulled a muscle in his big toe.

‘You’ve got to be able to ski, play golf, play tennis and ride a horse,’ a former England polo captain recently told me of the accomplishments he expected of his children. Stroll through the parks of West London right now, on a sunny evening, and you’ll see them all out there thrashing around in their whites – ‘Terrific shot, Petunia!’ ‘Your serve, Johnny!’

Sometimes the odd ‘Sorry!’ from a player when their forehand hits the net and drops gently on the other side, impossible to return, which has always struck me as an amusingly British way to respond to winning a point.

Is our innate competitiveness hardest at work on the tennis court? Hovering on the baseline, you’re not supposed to show that you mind when, really, you mind very, very much indeed.

You congratulate your opponent for a particularly stinging backhand that whizzed past when what you’re actually thinking is: ‘I hope your entire family is wiped out in a plague. And the dog.’

Is this healthy? I’m all for a bit of competitiveness over a game of Scrabble or backgammon, but I once watched a friend’s brother lose a point on his pretty home court in Oxfordshire and then thrash the tarmac so hard with his racket that the frame snapped. Gentility on the surface but psychosis underneath. That’s how sociopaths operate, isn’t it?

Worse still, this summer tennis is more fashionable than ever because that Gen-Z darling, Zendaya, has starred in a film about it and apparently we’re all supposed to be wearing Ralph Lauren dresses as a result. Challengers, it’s called.

I went to see it a couple of months ago partly because a friend had daringly suggested that it would make me ‘fancy the King’, since it also stars Josh O’Connor, who so brilliantly played the young Prince Charles as an Aberystwyth student in The Crown.

O’Connor plays a washed-up tennis pro reduced to sleeping in his car, and it was entertaining enough, with all its grunting and sex and high-octane drama but all I could think was: these people would have been insufferable at school.

Wimbledon kicks off in just over a week, but that seems to have become quite silly in recent times, with Centre Court debentures being flogged for £116,000. The Royal Box will be stuffed with people who have no interest in tennis for the remaining 364 days of the year, everyone will grumble about strawberry prices and some poor line judge will end up with a terrific shiner from a 140mph ace.

As Chris de Burgh begins in my favourite of all his tracks, ‘Dennis is a menace with his “Anyone for tennis?”’ Well, quite. Shove off, Dennis. Leave me in peace with my nice book.

Most posh people think tennis is a marker of civilisation – I think it’s a menace (2024)
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