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They Had the Foresight to Bring Tennis to Radio

“Four-two. Can Henman now serve confidently? Serves now. Forehand return from Philippoussis! Volley! And Henman is into the net.”

On this side of the Atlantic, rooting for Tim Henman to win Wimbledon makes about as much sense as listening to tennis on the radio. We can’t understand it. We laugh at the very idea. But in England, these are time-honored traditions, both of them, and on the day after People’s Sunday, with Henman on Centre Court against Mark Philippoussis, this is how English tennis fans with no tickets and no access to the telly observe People’s Monday.

By turning on Radio Wimbledon and listening to the stroke-by-stroke torture with no visual aids to soften the horror that surely must lurk behind every forehand.

“Every point a vital one now. Every point seems to have a little mini-subplot. So, Henman at 15-all, 4-2, fourth set. Serves now. Serve got back by Philippoussis! Oh, it’s into the net! A forehand volley....”

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Tennis play-by-play on the radio. It sounds like an old Monty Python skit. Forehand! Backhand! Forehand! Spam! Spam! Spam!

On television, tennis is best consumed with as little chatter as possible. Just the score, please. And the correct score, it has to be mentioned, now that Venus Williams’ 2004 Wimbledon crusade has been silenced.

Inside the stadium, fans are not supposed to talk while a point is being played. No noise at all. John McEnroe used to go ballistic if his ears detected a hot-dog wrapper being crumpled in the 67th row.

Take the visual images away from this quiet-on-the-set sport and what are you left with?

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A void. A vacuum. Tim Henman groping in the darkness, trying to bring England its first men’s singles Wimbledon title since Fred Perry in 1936.

For those who can’t bear to watch, Radio Wimbledon provides a service.

“So, 30-40. Henman, key moment. Nails being bitten by this partisan crowd. Eyes on Centre Court. Thirty-forty. Henman serves now. Can he come up with a big one? No. Into the net. Now we’ll see what he’s made of. Break-back point chance for Philippoussis. Hasn’t broken Henman’s serve yet. Good serve.... “

Radio Wimbledon first went on the air in 1992, two years before Henman played his first Wimbledon. Back then, Radio Wimbledon amounted to nothing more than a couple of portable offices on the roof of an equipment store. According to the Wimbledon website, “Despite the cramped conditions, uncontrollable temperatures and ambient noise leaking in, the views over the outside courts and queues along Church Road were excellent.”

Always look on the bright side of life. That attitude has carried Radio Wimbledon through a decade of Henman failures, through four semifinal defeats, with the network adding more commentators, state-of-the-art studios and Internet access via the tournament website, www.wimbledon.org.

Henman and Radio Wimbledon have grown up together, and suffered together, although never in silence.

“After 3 hours and 4 minutes this is one titanic struggle, 5-3. Henman serves now. That’s fault. Long. He hasn’t put his first serves where he would like. But now he needs this point. And then he’ll have match point. Three match points he’ll have. Can he get him? Second serve. Got back by Philippoussis. Volley from Henman. Philippoussis goes down the line! And, is it out? And so it is match point now for Henman! A third match point! In this the fourth-set tiebreak.”

Rupert Bell and Bill Bowrey called Monday’s Henman-Philippoussis match for Radio Wimbledon, and if their agents are good, they have contracts that pay them by the word. They have to keep pace with Philippoussis’ blinding serve, with Henman’s darting scrambles to the net, for more than three hours.

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“How is he still in this rally?” Bell says of Henman late in the fourth set. Henman could ask the same of Bell. It’s an endurance test for the announcers and their listeners, who rely on passion to complete the assignment.

Tennis on the radio shouldn’t work, but then, neither should poker on TV. It has a curiously addictive rhythm -- the announcers set the stage, the percussive blast of the ball signals that play’s on, the cheers or groans from the crowd confirm the result.

Strange things happen in this sport. People will listen to tennis on the radio. And, occasionally, Henman pulls out the big match at Wimbledon.

“Match point. First time he’s serving for it. Can he come up with a big serve? Philippoussis waits for it. Henman serves. (A Cyclops machine beeps in the background.) Long! Oh, the fans react, showing how disappointed they are ... This partisan British crowd ... Five-six, match point now. Second serve. Backhand return from Philippoussis! It’s OUT! And Henman has made it through to the quarterfinals again! But once again, it’s been a roller-coaster affair.”

Radio Wimbledon knows its audience. Moments after the match, a reporter on Henman Hill, where fans gather on the Wimbledon grounds to watch action on the big screen, interviews a spectator, asking Karen from Reading, “Can you enjoy watching Tim Henman play? Or is it just a little bit tense?”

“It is quite tense,” Karen replies, “but I always enjoy every moment of it. There’s nothing like it, a bit of cutting edge, keep the match going, it makes it more enjoyable. I think if it was just a walkover, it wouldn’t be so enjoyable, actually.”

“And Karen, do you get a good feeling about this year?”

“Wow,” she says, pondering the weight of that question. “Who knows? He’s trying ... “

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And that’s enough to keep people tuning in to Radio Wimbledon.


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