John Inverdale fronts his very own Wimbledon passion play
Becker and Mac might take centre court but anchor man happy to sit back and run the show
It’s less wild, not as much a force of nature, but it is England’s All-Ireland hurling final. It’s their Super Bowl. Their running the bulls in Pamplona. Its Lord’s and it’s Henley, part of a very English summer trilogy of cricket, rowing and tennis. But it’s Wimbledon that casts the longest shadow.
Most people would know of the club and its traditions, or have followed the endless search for the next British winner. Because of all that angst we know the name of the most famous pre-war champion, Fred Perry – the last male Briton to win Wimbledon.
We know of Perry and his 1936 win, his third, only because the BBC told us so.
It is difficult to separate the tournament from the BBC version of the tournament and from Dan Maskell’s patrician voice and his chocolaty “peach of a volley” to Sue Barker and John Inverdale.
Wimbledon fortnight has become as much a broadcaster’s sumptuous set-piece as the biggest Grand Slam event of them all.
Most people will interface with the tennis over the next two weeks, with Barker and Inverdale and their farrago of guests from Australia, the USA and Germany.
It might seem very un-English but John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pat Cash have, by accident, given the ivy-clad English party quite a jolt of international colour, McEnroe an inspired partner choice for the two-handed court jester routine with the electric-haired Becker. Both have a sharp analytical edge.
Barker takes the housewives and school holiday kids through the summer days and Inverdale does the evening shift. It seems fair to say the sport of tennis takes over for two weeks and at the tiller is Inverdale’s steadying hand.
‘I still retain the thrill’
“They are long days, but they are great fun,” says Inverdale. “I still retain the thrill as I drive over the top of Wimbledon Common and head down to the complex. I still just love it. I queued for the first time when I was 13 years old to see Nastase playing. I still have that same kind of buzz.
“Obviously then it was the excitement in seeing people you admired. From a professional point of view, I still feel passionately involved in it and I still have a childish enthusiasm for it.
“I think in recent years the prospect in Tim’s (Henman) days and now Andy’s (Murray) of British participation lasting into the second week sustains everybody through the long days.”
Inverdale spent his early years in Singapore, where his father was a dental surgeon in the British navy. As school started very early, it also finished very early and for a boy who loved sport, the afternoons were his canvas for tennis, swimming and the rest. His father would take him to watch rugby matches and anything else he’d get from the BBC World Service and the rice paper airmail editions of the English papers.
There was only ever one path to take. Tennis was always part of it and at the University of Southampton he was captain of the college team. Still, a tennis background doesn’t stop McEnroe from shooting him down. Occasionally Inverdale brings it on himself.
Flash in the pan
“In 1977, I managed to get my programme for Wimbledon signed by Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis and Bjorn Borg. Mac was a qualifier who got through to the semi-finals that year and I didn’t bother to hang around to get his autograph because I thought, well, he’s going to be a flash in the pan. I’d to get a train back home so it wasn’t worth waiting for him.
“How wrong could I have been? I kept the programme and ended up working with John and got him to sign it 25 years later. Yes, I did tell him the story. He said, ‘You knew nothing about tennis then, you know nothing about it now’.”
For all his Englishness, Inverdale has a catholic appetite for sport. Rugby is up there, but so, too, is horse racing and he’s as interested in talking about the gallop on the beach at Laytown as he is about this week’s tennis monolith.
He’s also deliberate in explaining he’s not feigning any Irish interest.
“I was having this conversation with Keith Wood on Saturday and what is the name of the race course where they race once a year on the beach . . . Laytown,” he says.
“On my to do list today is to look up when they are on this year and see if I can come over. It’s one of those things that fascinate me. I am a huge horse racing fan and I must go to the Laytown races. It’s on my absolute definite things to do. What great craic.
“I’ll tell you something else, genuinely, genuinely, genuinely. I want to go to the All-Ireland hurling final. I’ve been to the Gaelic football final and it was fantastic.”
First, though, a two-week soap opera has to runs its course. There is Andy Murray sweating up and the eccentric seeding of Nadal at five. There is the weather and the Serena Williams factor and the great debate over women’s parity with men in the prize-money stakes.
“In the first round half the characters get killed because that’s how it is . . . sport is unbelievably brutal. Tennis is the hardest sport to make it in because the top level is brutal. It is an absolutely brutal sport.” he says.
“When you think of it in those terms . . . there’s 128 in the draw and 127 are going to lose. You come in and wonder what the script writers have got in store today. That’s the great things about all sport. It’s not written and it’s going to happen on the hoof.”
Inverdale, you may like or dislike, but he has presence. He is in control. He has great hair.The three things that make a great front man. But he also knows the assembly around him, the multicultural package are more than bit players.
At Wimbledon, McEnroe can be seen scrambling from studio to studio across the public walkways in a bad suit wearing a baseball cap and white running shoes, his head down. But everybody knows who he is. Becker’s cameo is lolling against the wall outside the players’ restaurant laughing with a pretty girl and blowing cigar smoke in the air as dozens of people look up at him taking pictures with their phones.
“The one thing I’ll say about Boris more than anything is his ability to be humorous in his second language,” says Inverdale.
“His skill is given to very few. It’s hard for people to be humorous in their first language.
Entertaining and informative
“He manages to be entertaining and informative and to get the British sense of humour . . . I know he spent a lot of time living here but I just think it’s a phenomenal skill to have. Mac, you know, is a buff on music and wine and art and this that and the other, so the conversation is never dull. He has always got something to say.”
Showtime lasts two weeks. The prism of Inverdale and the BBC maybe has a strong resonance in Ireland for those brought up in the times of limited TV coverage.
Wimbledon was there when not a lot of other things were. Borg and McEnroe or Virginia Wade were impossibly glamorous, out of reach in a place called SW19 in London.
And Maskell might have been at a buttoned-up English tea party, so not working class. But populism has conquered that. Wimbledon is a mass event, viral.
“When you have a big game like a Murray match and you’ve 10 to15 million people watching, the majority will not have picked up a tennis racquet in their life,” says Inverdale.
“You need people who can broadcast to the tennis aficionados. But they also need the touch to understand they are broadcasting to people who don’t know about double-fisted backhands or playing single-handed. They must have a way of engaging with the audience in a down to earth way.
“Other than, say, football where everybody knows what’s going on, that’s a key thing for the really good broadcasters – if they are able to appeal to the expert and also to the novice.
“I would cite somebody like Keith Wood in rugby, who falls into that category, because he understands that if we have got nine million people watching a Six Nations game the huge majority of those people won’t have played rugby. It’s part of his job to explain it and also to add extra value to it.”
When Inverdale swoops down from Wimbledon Common and there’s a heat haze over the courts and he’s standing on the roof of the broadcasting building and they open the gates and he can see the kids running to the courts they’ve chosen and he can hear the announcer welcoming everyone and telling them there will be sunshine and that temperature may reach 25 degrees . . . well, it’s not a bad start to any day.