When I was a kid, the men in my family watched sports on Saturdays. Mainly football, but it didn’t really matter what, as long as there was a ball and something to have an opinion about. One Christmas Eve, finding themselves in front of the telly with cans of lager and no sport on, they even resorted to commentating on the nativity film.
‘She’s in pretty good nick for someone who’s just had a baby.’
‘It’s the bloody son of God! What do you expect?’
I’m not really sure what the women did while their husbands and sons were devoting themselves to the great God of Grandstand. Nipped to the shops, I suppose; fried chips for lunchtime. Entertained me. It never looked very interesting.
But once a year, the tables were turned. Wimbledon was on. All the women who had never once looked at sport the whole year round would suddenly become transfixed by McEnroe and Lendl, Graf and Navratalova.
We weren’t great spectators; we didn’t even really know the rules, and certainly not the form of the players. I remember my Gran pointing out that Ivanisovic could never win Wimbledon because he was fond of spitting and his eyes were too close together; and, year in, year out, how she called Pete Sampras ‘Champers’, which was actually the name of my aunt’s Golden Retriever.
What we lacked in knowledge, though, we made up for in enthusiasm. We spent the early weeks of each summer cooing and sucking in breath as we admired overhead lobs and cross-court backhands. ‘Straight down the line!’ we’d breathe in awed tones; ‘Ace!’
When I first met H, I was glad to note that he wasn’t the sort of man who insisted on watching the various football leagues every Saturday. In fact, he showed so little interest in sport altogether that he was appalled when I sat down to watch Wimbledon the first summer we were together.
‘Tennis?’ he said, ‘Really?’
Soon I was explaining the rules to him, and trying to work out what the exact laws were that governed the tie-break or to interpret the jungle calls of the line judges. After a couple of years, he began to take a mild, if amused, interest in Wimbledon himself.
And then, suddenly, about eight years ago, he announced that he was into tennis. He had been conducting this new love like an affair, clandestinely following the trajectories of stars whose names I entirely forgot from August to June. He had little access to watching the actual matches, but had become deeply involved in tracking the scores and the rankings. It was like he was following tennis for the maths.
Even more incomprehensibly to me, he was following it all year round, through a series of Grand Slams and tournaments that I’d never even heard of. I tried to take an interest – and to stake my claim over tennis as a thing that I’d brought into the relationship – but soon I was outflanked by sheer nerdery. I couldn’t keep up with him. Tennis was just Wimbledon to me; nothing more.
Soon, he started taking an interest in the career of a young player called Andy Murray. At the time, Murray was pausing in the middle of most matches to vomit at the side of the court. My mother and I sniggered. We’d been through the Henman years. We wouldn’t get fooled again.
But Herbert had faith. He showed Andy Murray the kind of loving attention usually reserved only for me. Over the last decade, he’s subscribed to all manner of channels to watch him play, and has studied every point of every match. When the world has crowed over Murray’s failures – be they on-court plummets or off-court grouches – H has stood firmly by his side. He has eschewed the charms of his suave compatriot, Roger Federer (H is half Swiss), and has adored, instead, the scrappy Scottish genius, for the very reason that he loses sometimes. He has cried alongside him and consoled; and he’s scolded the rest of the world for failing to notice his extraordinary ascendancy to world number two. He’s an evangelist in a land of unbelievers.
‘What I love about Murray,’ said H last week, ‘is that he’s entirely capable of fucking it up every time. He doesn’t bring one game; he waits and figures everyone out.’
Today, at Wimbledon, Murray faces his nemesis, Novak Djokovic. We’ll be watching from the living room (both of us; it’s July), with a few glasses of Pimm’s, some cucumber sandwiches and a steady stream of fist-pumps and c’mons. And what ever happens, whether Murray wins or loses, H will love him anyway.
This year, though, there might just be good news. Or so says Herbert.