Librarian was too limiting a word for him, for really he was a detective and a navigator. A bespectacled, kind gentleman who would help you ferret out facts and direct you through the maze of knowledge. Shakti Roy ran the library at the Anandabazar Patrika group when I first started as a sportswriter in the mid-1980s. I was discovering new worlds and he knew where they might be found.
Clippings. Books. Micro film. He would help me hunt and I knew what I was looking for. Becker, Graf, Lendl, Wimbledon. Quotes, descriptions, scores. Anything, everything. In 1987, I would actually travel to Wimbledon and go on to report from there seven times over the years but most of my life I have seen this place through the sentences of others.
Now you can watch first rounds as broadcasters talk through first serves but then words had to be scrounged. The elegant prose of the finely-mannered David McMahon in the Wills Book Of Excellence: Tennis. Nirmal Shekar, my smoking buddy during rain breaks, who hammered out words on Friedrich Nietzsche and Pete Sampras for The Hindu.
So much we collect and can’t let go of. I have a 1981 edition of the World Of Tennis, which was the official yearbook of the International Tennis Federation. Inside lives a poet. Rex Bellamy resembled a civil servant but wrote charming sentences. “The ball hovers,” he scribbled once about the French Open, “rather like the kind of rain that seems to hang about, as distinct from merely falling.”
Words are still where I go to wander. Words are a lesson and a force. Words bring me an understanding of craft, of tradition (read Aditya Iyer’s splendid piece in The Indian Express on the Wimbledon queue) and help me surf through the past. Words like Marshall Jon Fisher’s opening paragraph in his book, A Terrible Splendor.
“July the twentieth, 1937, and Baron Gottfried von Cramm tosses a new white Slazenger tennis ball three feet above his head. It seems to hang there suspended for the slightest of moments, a distant frozen moon, before his wooden racket plucks it out of the electrified air of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, rocketing a service winner past J. Donald Budge.”
Tennis books weren’t easy to find in my Kolkata boyhood. A Martina Navratilova biography. A Björn Borg life story. Found on pavements or pinched from a pal, who can remember? But smudged and tired, they are still with me. I remember an office subscription to TENNIS magazine and waiting every week for Sports Illustrated (SI) to arrive like some plastic-wrapped bible. Inside was Curry Kirkpatrick, colourful, irreverent, who wrote in 1990: “The tabloids meanwhile were also keeping track of Seles’s infernal noise-making, which was threatening to wilt all the strawberries in the British Isles.”
Someone had to bring talent to life, to make you feel the oily slickness of the grass, to let you taste the pomposity of Wimbledon, to educate you about its characters—Fred Perry’s cuffed trousers, Suzanne Lenglen’s mid-match sips of brandy and Clive James’ chauvinistic poem, Bring Me The Sweat Of Gabriela Sabatini.
Dan Maskell at the microphone, so comfortable with silence, was an early interpreter of Wimbledon, as was SI’s Frank Deford, who used words like paint. In a 1980 piece on Wimbledon, he wrote of John McEnroe’s “bizarre service posture in which he stands sideways to the baseline, rocking back and forth like a broken toy” and then ended his piece with a sentence on Evonne Goolagong, the first mother to win in 66 years: “In another 10 minutes it was raining again, but Evonne was safe now, wet only with her tears and the moist black curls that pressed against her forehead and framed her face as laurel.”
Who brought you to cricket, to hockey, to boxing? K.N. Prabhu? Ron Hendricks? Norman Mailer? Writers help you fall in love and you attach yourself to their sentences like you hold someone’s hand. The theatre and labour and mathematics of anything has to be revealed to you. Peeled back. Laid bare. Examined.
Arthur Ashe, in a Wimbledon diary, wrote a small section on loss and how it was worn. Some players preferred silence, some forgot fast, some hurt deeply. “Sometimes,” wrote Ashe of Charlie Pasarell, “you’ll see the tears in Charlie’s eyes and he’ll say things like ‘I’ll never play Wimbledon again’.”
But everyone comes back.
I discovered Wimbledon’s flavour partly for myself but have also been taken around it through the words of Bud Collins, Peter Bodo, Steve Flink, Simon Barnes, Joel Drucker, Steve Tignor, Courtney Nguyen, Jon Wertheim, Louisa Thomas, Christopher Clarey and all the other names which escape me like forgotten stations in a long train journey.
Stories are my sustenance and this year, as the tournament starts on Monday, I will as usual search for an old pal in The Times Of India who has visited those lawns over 20 times. There have been many Indians at Wimbledon but Prajwal Hegde is a favourite. Earlier this month, she was in Paris and wrote as the French Open concluded: “In the second tier of seating on Court Philippe-Chatrier a band played. There were trumpeters with bowler hats, hitting high brassy notes. The drum clap on loop accompanied by chants of ‘let’s go Nole, let’s go’, or was that Casper, it was hard to tell. There was another match being played in the galleries.”
Of some things—Muhammad Ali, Everest, Nadia Comăneci—there are never enough words and perhaps Wimbledon can sneak into that group. Best then to end with a tale from Gordon Forbes, player turned writer, who arrived—as he wrote in his masterful A Handful Of Summers—from Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1954 and immediately visited the All England Club. It was closed to everyone but members but he and a friend pleaded that they had come far and an old man let them in to see Centre Court and said:
“There then. There it is then. That there’s Wimbledon.”
Later, wrote Forbes, when the tournament began, he lost his first ever service game because his eyes were “burning”.
Tears, you see.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.