My childhood sports memories are crystal clear.
No, I don’t mean winning the bean bag race in primary school or scoring my first 50 on the cricket pitch. I’m talking about those captivating, inspiring and majestic moments that I watched on free television. The ones that were fascinating and still live in the depths of my brain, etched there, like some kind of beautiful slow-motion sports montage.
I remember the USA ’94 World Cup. Diana Ross missed a penalty in the opening ceremony, Baggio missed the decisive in the final, Romario, Bebeto, et al – and the little sticker book in which I had to write all the results (and which I always stored in a box in my spare room).
I remember the Grand National in 1996. The excitement of coming home to watch it after seeing it toy story to the cinema for a friend’s birthday. Mom and dad had it recorded on VHS so we could all watch it together – and the horse we picked won.
I remember Atlanta ’96. Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch, Steve Redgrave on the water, Michael Johnson and Frankie Fredericks running slightly faster than me in the beanbag race…
Then there is the cricket theme “Soul Limbo”, Game of the day, Trans world sportthe sweet tones of Des Lynam, GrandstandMartin Offiah’s Challenge Cup try and of course Wimbledon summers.
For two weeks every year, it felt like the whole country had stopped to watch all the SW19 action. In my mind, it was still warm (aside from when Cliff Richard took the mic) with those long shadows cast across the hallowed grass courts late in the evening.
There was ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, the Williams sisters bursting onto the scene, and then British hopefuls Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. All the beautiful shots that come out every year – strawberries and cream, the Royal Box, Henman Hill (now the Murray Mound) and inevitably John McEnroe shouting ‘you can’t be serious’, probably while a player was lifting the famous trophy and giving him a kiss – or as Rafa prefers, a bite.
All of these things seemed to seep into my consciousness every 12 months. We moved to Devon just before I started high school and their crumbling old tennis courts – you know, the kind that felt like they were made of the hardest black concrete that would be able to withstand a dystopian apocalypse and cut your knees into a thousand pieces when you fall – have been replaced by spongy, shaded green courts at the top of the hill on the walk to where the cooler sixth graders were dragging.
We started wearing long tennis socks instead of little pop socks, replaced “cool” or “lush” with “ace” in our colloquial slang and knew that the circle pressed on the Playstation controller while playing Smash Court Tennis by Anna Kournikova was a strong forehand, while the triangle was a lob or drop shot.
One stupidly hot summer, my friend Sam and I devised a new game. We stood in my parents’ driveway and threw a tennis ball against the wall above the garage but below the upstairs window. The rules were quite simple: you had to serve behind the long silver drain at the back of the lane and the other person had to catch the ball on the court (the lane) before it landed. We marked it like the tennis matches we watched Sue Barker present on the box. “15 / Love” and “Game, Set, Match”. What a time to live.
There’s so much talk about linear TV, audience viewing habits and capturing younger audiences, but you can’t replicate the magic of watching live sports. Despite what I said about watching the Grand National on tape, it’s not the same as watching something more or less in real time and sharing that experience with millions of others.
I feel really lucky to be playing a small part in the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon again this year. Like last summer, I’ll tell the public about all the action on BBC iPlayer and the six red button channels, with every pitch available to watch live and on demand.
For me, that means sitting in a dark room, trying to keep an eye on all the pitches, and telling stories through multiple TV screens, computer screens, social media accounts, and my trusty handwritten charts of who’s playing who on what terrain and on what channel. .
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Doing all of this while simultaneously listening to gallery staff, commentators, pundits and network presenters, like Sue, streaming her latest Wimbledon, is a thrill.
I’m confident that my reactions and skills to vocally navigate the action will far exceed my pedigree as a tennis player – and I can’t wait to get started.
Who knows, there may be primary school children watching over the next couple of weeks, ready to make up their own tennis matches, pretending to be Emma Raducanu or Coco Gauff, and remembering those gloriously sunny two weeks. 25 years from now, just as I am.