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Wimbledon humour: A thwackety wakety time

British humorist Matt Harvey, Wimbledon's only ever poet-in-residence, on listening to the sounds of the 2010 tournament

Matt Harvey, the first official Wimbledon poet, at Centre Court in 2010. Photo: AP
Matt Harvey, the first official Wimbledon poet, at Centre Court in 2010. Photo: AP

Seven years ago, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut squared off at Wimbledon in what became the longest tennis match in history. Played over three days, 11 hours and 183 games, it ended with Isner winning the final set 70-68.

The Trojan War had Homer to record the triumphs and losses for posterity; luckily, Wimbledon, too, then had Matt Harvey at hand. Appointed as the first official tournament poet through the artist-in-residence programme, Harvey, 54, memorialized that epic clash in a cheeky haiku—“high performance play/ all day yet still no climax/ it’s tantric tennis."

“I said, what I am going to do is celebrate the longest game in history by using the shortest poetry form," he says over the phone from Devon, where he is based. “People were giving them a standing ovation at 50-all and I was thinking, ‘don’t encourage them,’" he jokes. “It’s going on and on!"

Harvey, a humorist, performance poet and lyricist, is all pithy wit and exuberant good humour. And seven years since that game, and since Wimbledon’s only tenure with a poet, Harvey looks back on his time there with affection.

In 2010, when he was appointed through a collaboration between the tournament organizers and the Poetry Trust—a UK-based organization promoting poetry—Harvey’s mandate was to celebrate all the micro moments and peripheral pleasures of the world’s most prestigious tennis event, rather than to focus on players and matches.

“They said, we don’t want you to write about court drama," he says. “That’s for sports journalists and everyone’s writing about that. We want you to write about umpires and the ball boys and grass-court and strawberries and cream. I was really pleased to hear that."

The other part of his brief was just as simple: Don’t embarrass us. He asked the tournament organizers what would count as embarrassment. “And they said, ‘What’s embarrassing is if you are rude to our guests,’ and so I gave them my word I would not be rude to their guests."

Harvey’s 20-plus poems from the tournament, published on the official blog and read on the radio, harness impish rhymes, coruscating wit and lovable jibes. The poem-a-day-mandate wasn’t hard, given his experience on BBC’s Radio 4, which had involved producing poems quickly. “There was pressure, but nothing I’m not used to," he says.

Harvey made up his schedule as he went along, watching games, speaking to off-stage figures like groundsmen and ball girls, and generally taking in the atmosphere. He also worked the crowds on the grounds, visiting Murray Mound and reading aloud for the waiting queues. But being the official poet made him an outsized novelty and obvious media draw. “All these different people wanted to talk to the poet," he says. “And we agreed—myself and the Wimbledon committee—that that was an important thing to do…poems want to be heard."

His position allowed Harvey, himself a long-time tennis fan, access to all sorts of exciting corners of tennis’ best-loved address. “One of the privileges is to actually see the top players playing up close," he says. “They are so elegant and graceful and powerful."

That on-court artistry will be matched again this year, though on canvas. Painter Jeremy Houghton has been appointed “championship artist" and will produce work on the theme of “match play". Wimbledon set up its artist-in-residence programme in 2006 with the idea of expanding its collection of art; it now has paintings, drawings, glassware and sculpture produced through the residency. “Having an artist- or poet-in-residence is a good idea and can only help," says Harvey. “One of the things it does is tease out aspects that aren’t normally seen or noticed."

Harvey, who now hosts Wondermentalist, a “comedy-infused, musically enhanced interactive poetry cabaret" on Radio 4, may have had his magical fortnight at Wimbledon in 2010, but his tournament highlight in fact arrived later: In 2011, he was hosted on the tournament’s opening Monday in the royal box. “That was such a lovely gesture," he says. “They felt I had honoured my commitment to them to not embarrass them and do my best."


Verses from Wimbledon

One Of Ours

if ever he’s brattish

or brutish or skittish

he’s Scottish

but if he looks fittish

and his form is hottish

he’s British

More Than A Lawn

it’s a lawn—just a lawn

but it’s more than a lawn

it’s a dance floor, a war zone, a platform, a stage

showcase, coliseum, a ring, a fight cage

big top, debating hall, combat arena

goldfish bowl, cauldron, a cliché convener

petri dish, pressure cooker, drama provider

physics laboratory, small hadron collider

it’s all these things—sort of—but what is it not?

it isn’t a park, or a nice picnic spot

it’s not an allotment—there’s no strawberry patch

but the bounce will be true

and the bounces will match

those on all the courts made by the Wimbledon crew

it’s still just a lawn but one made by the best

a regular lawn but a lawn that is blessed

just a lawn, made of grass, but a lawn that’s possessed

of a singular, unparalleled beauty

and Eddie Seaward expects

every blade of grass to do its duty


bounce bounce bounce bounce

thwackety wackety zingety ping

hittety backety pingety zang

wack, thwok, thwack, pok,

thwikety, thwekity, thwokity, thwakity

cover the court with alarming alacrity

smackety dink, smackety dink

boshety bashity crotchety crashety

up loops a lob with a teasing temerity

leaps in the air in defiance of gravity

puts it away with a savage severity

coupled with suavity



(reaches for towel with a certain serenity)

bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce

thwack, thwok, plak, plok

come to the nettety

bit of a liberty

quickly regrettety

up goes a lobbity

hoppety skippety

awkwardly backwardly

slippety trippety

tumble & sprawl

audible gasps…


(opponent asks how is he?

courtesy, nice to see

getting up gingerly

brushity thighsity

all, if you’re asking me

bit big-girls-blousity)

bounce bounce bounce

whack, thwok, plik, plok

into the corner, then down the linety

chasety downity, whackety backety

all on the runnity, crossety courtety

dropety vollety —quality, quality…

… oh I say what impossible gettery

no, umpirical rulery—nottety uppity –

oooh – doesn’t look happety

back to the baseline

muttery muttery muttery muttery


bounce, bounce, bounce,

thwacketty OUT

bounce, bounce, bounce,

thwacketty BLEEP

2nd serve

bounce, bounce, bounce,


thwackety thumpity

dinkety-clinkety, gruntity-thumpity




fistety pumpety, fistety pumpety COME ON!

quiet please

bounce, bounce, bounce,

thwacketty thwoketty

bashetty boshetty

clashety closhety



lookaty linety, lookaty line-judge

line judge nodity

wearily query

umpire upholdery, indicate inchery

insult to injury


give line-judge scrutiny

face full of mutiny,

back to the baseline

through gritted teethery

muttery mutiny mutiny muttery

bounce bounce bounce

thwak, thwok, thwak, plok

thwakety plik, thwoketty plak

to-ity fro-ity fro-ity to-ity

slowity quickety quickety slowity

turnety headety, headety turnity

leftety rightety leftety rightety

seems like we’ve been here a bloomin eternity

rightety leftety rightety leftety

topety spinnety, backhandy slicety

lookety watchety, scratchety bottity

fabulous forehand, backhandy slicety

furious forehand, savagely slicety

fearsome ferocity, vicious velocity

bilious backhand—blasted so blistery…

…half a mile out but that line judge is history



new balls please

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