5 JULY 1986, Page 38


Backhand compliments

Ferdinand Mount

The strain on a linesman used to be purely mental — the glare from the aggrieved player, the wounding reference in the public prints to the dubious call. But on court number two, variously known as the Graveyard and the Bullring, more immediately physical considerations come into play. Boris Becker's practice services send the ballboys at the scoreboard scatter- ing like sparrows surprised. And when he begins to serve in earnest, there is a skinny chap, well stricken in years, in charge of the centre line, for whom one's heart begins to bleed. His cries of 'Out' start in a confident tenor, but halfway through the first set they rise to alto castrato as he hurls himself this way and that to avoid the thunderbolts. Little Michael Pernfors, with his hair en brosse, buttoned-up Aertex shirt and baggy shorts, a kind of Swedish Lupin Pooter ('I'm afraid Mr Pernfors is no longer with the bank'), smiles ruefully as the balls whistle past him, sometimes disappearing first bounce into the crowd, or even, with one of Becker's smashes, over the back of the stand.

The court is not quite big enough for the biggest hitters, which is why it is the most exciting court to be watching. A couple of hours earlier, Henri Leconte was thumping the ball almost as hard as Becker. John Fitzgerald, less amiable than Pernfors and less delicate of touch, has to stand so far back to receive service that his lean Aus- tralian bottom is perched in the linesman's lap. Leconte is marvellous, must be nearly a stone lighter than last year, so that he looks less like a young mechanic from an early Jean Gabin film than a jeune premier in one of those frothy comedies of the Gerard Philipe era. His topspin backhand is hurled with a kind of operatic bravura which seems grotesquely uncommercial. Any coach who was on a percentage of Leconte's winnings would have excised the stroke from his repertoire long ago. But when he is playing well, as he has been throughout this tournament, everything works and he looks unbeatable. He drops the odd set on a tiebreak to Fitzgerald, but then the tiebreak system often flatters a player who may have done no more than clung on to his own service throughout the set and then won a single point off his opponent's service during the tiebreak. It certainly makes it more difficult for de- fending champions to come through the championships without losing a set, as once used to happen.

The best matches are so close that it is tempting to talk of a player fluking his way through, and of the rub of the green — or the brown, as the sun and the wear bring clouds of dust, slowing the ball and length- ening the rallies like flies also suggests an element of the random in a competition where the leading players are much of a muchness. That is, I think, an illusion. These days, in drawing up the seeding, the All-England Club, terrorised by technolo- gy like many another august body, simply accepts the computer rankings. These rankings bring together the evidence from some two dozen previous tournaments which are not merely held on a variety of surfaces but may also reflect a varying degree of effort. In the small hours under hot lights in some strange mid-west town after a six-hour flight, one may not be in a condition to give of one's best.

In fact, the players who reached the mens' quarter-finals were as talented an octet as could have been selected in the world: the three best servers, Becker, Lendl and the giant Balkan, Slobodan Zivojinovic; the fastest volleyer, Pat Cash (who was clearly going to be a great player until his career was interrupted by injury); the most entrancing backhands, Leconte, and Krishnan; the subtlest tactician, Mecir. Between them, they offered the tennis- lover the highest refinements of pleasure. Cash's victory over Wilander was as good a match as you could hope to see. It is notable that all the five seeded Swedes fell so early. Though they are attractive play- ers, each one of them, in some way or other, seems to lack the very highest class.

Readers who are sensitive to the colour purple may wish to absent themselves while a few words are said about Ramesh Krishnan and his backhand. The player himself comes onto court with a diffident, oddly stilted gait, as though only half expected or distracted from other duties, perhaps at the behest of one of those memsahibs whose strange fancies loom so large in novels about India under the Raj. He is as slight as the ball-girls and looks little older, although he is now in his mid-twenties. On court he has the same unhurried, almost strolling manner as his father, who twice reached the semi-finals here. But Krishnan fils is, if anything, more gentle and delicate still. His service is a mere apology, a method of putting the ball in play without upsetting anyone, much as Rosewall's was. But then the groundstrokes too seem to be hit — no, `hit' is not the word — feathered without effort. With only the faintest suggestion of putting his 'weight' behind the shot, with the barest, least ostentatious suggestion imaginable of a follow-through, the ball is sped down the side-line to within a foot or two of the base-line. I noticed that his victims — talented players such as Nystrom and Jelen — become increasingly reduced, not to impotent fury but to the silence of bereavement, as the ball dies at their feet or steals past them on the blind side. Playing against Krishnan must make one feel awfully hot and sweaty.

My selections (Becker to beat Mayotte or possibly Lendl in the final) have at least survived into the last eight. None of the ten tennis correspondents polled by Tennis World thought Becker would retain his title; six went for Lendl, three for the already eliminated Edberg, and one for the non-combatant McEnroe. We shall see.