15 JUNE 1996, Page 55

High life

My biggest mistake

Tel k1

Baden Baden Imade the biggest mistake of my life exactly 40 years ago right here, in beautiful Baden Baden. I arrived as a fresh 19-year- old with a suspect temperament and a lousy forehand. Budge Patty, the elegant American Wimbledon champion of 1950 was my mentor, and he advised early nights and lots of practice. Back then the beauty of the neoclassical town did not register as it does now. One was not used to ugliness in the Fifties, and as I checked into the Europeischerhof with its vast salons and wide lawns, my only thoughts were for Edda Buding. Edda was German champi- on and I was in love with her. The trouble was she refused to put out. We had played Istanbul, Athens and Beirut and now Baden Baden, but still no go. Des- perate as hell I proposed forthwith. I shall never forget her blue eyes and shy man- ner, and what she said: 'Ich kann dich nicht im Ernst nehmen.' I cannot take you seriously, or something to that effect. Well, the next morning I played Herr Buchholz, the German number two, I believe, and although I lost I gave a good account of myself. Herr B. was ferocious looking. He was very big, with very dark skin and a full head of black hair slicked back. Players used to joke behind his back that he had been in the Waffen SS. All I knew was that when he spotted my belt buckle with Gott mit uns written on it, he gave me a wide smile and played my back- hand throughout the match. Afterwards Gottfried von Cramm and Budge Patty and I went to the casino for dinner.

Aesthetic obligations aside, one realises just what lousy times one's been living in by remembering how one used to dress. Travel- ling tennis players back then actually packed a dinner jacket. In 1976, the first year Borg won Wimbledon, he arrived at Annabel's wearing a tee-shirt and correctly was shown the door. In 1956 Gottfried, Budge and I went to dine a trois wearing black tie. At the next table was an incredibly sexy, blonde older woman dining with her parents, whom Budge knew. She turned out to be 24 years old and it was the beginning of a beautiful (three day and night) friendship. I forgot everything and everybody and only turned up for doubles and mixed five minutes before. When the older woman and her par- ents left I tried to get back with Edda but it was no go. Ich hab's gewusst', she said to me sweetly. 'I knew it.'

Forty years later I'm back at the Tennis- Club Rot-Weiss, and nothing but the dress code has changed. The players' dress code, that is. On my way here I stopped at a lake for a swim and actually saw a man wearing one of those dark blue woollen swimming trunks held up by a white belt our fathers used to wear, which used to drip water from you know where to children's great merriment. Elderly Germans and Austrians still resist wearing gym clothes for formal occasions a la American, and more often than not greet strangers with cheerful Guten Morgens. Which brings me to my greatest mistake. I have always wanted a quiet life, and had I not been such a fool with Edda, I could have spent my last 40 years here, a paradise lost, with blond grandchildren, if not great-grandchildren. Instead, I have wasted my life with brutal Brits, lacking in social graces, Americans and mendacious modern Greeks, just for starters. Never mind the boozing and the tarts. All this week I have been contemplating my mis- take and walking around the neoclassical jewel looking like F. Scott Fitzgerald with jet-lag. As Thomas Wolfe did not say, you can go home again, and this is mine. The Germans know how to resist change. The Americans, the Brits and the Greeks only know how to ruin their heritage.

On my way to the club — I did not shine tennis-wise — I heard a young girl playing the piano. Chopin. I assumed she was young and stood outside her window listen- ing. The mistakes she made added to the poignancy of the moment. Then her father came out, looked at me, said nothing and went back inside. It was a scene from the Fifties. Just like the one that took place as I left heartbroken 40 years ago. On the way to Basel, a Spaniard boarded the train, looked at my five white Slazenger rackets and asked me where I had come from. `Baden Baden', I said, 'y usted?"Thantiago de Campothtela, Thantiago di Cam- pothtela', came the answer.