It was round about halfway through the second set and things were hotting up on Centre Court when I noticed the mobile starting to flash silently in my breast pocket. Furtively I fished it out. There was no choice. You have to be on call. Even in the throes of the greatest tennis match ever played, you have to be ready to respond to events.
I saw that someone had sent me a text. Was it news of a burst main on the Marylebone Road? Had the police made some breakthrough?
It was my old mucker Steve Norris, and here was the message he had the effrontery to send me. “Shouldn’t you be attending to civic duties,” texted Nozza, “rather than swanning around in the Royal Box at Wimbledon?”
I am afraid I was simply too engrossed in the game to reply, and so here – belatedly – is the reason, Steve old horse, why I spent the bulk of Sunday watching tennis.
I was there because I had never been to Wimbledon before, and I discovered that it is just about the sublimest thing this country has to offer.
Oh it wasn’t just the flummery of the Royal Box, though I must say that the quality of the entertainment was stratospheric. It was the game that was the thing. It was the theatre. It was a pageant that told you all you needed to know about the human condition.
In the four-hour, 48-minute struggle between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal we saw the eternal conflict between time and talent. Any human activity – sport, art, literature, politics, even journalism – will produce its dominating exponent.
There always seems to be someone who possesses a God-gifted ability to command the stage; until the years go by, and nature starts to take her course, and the sap runs more thickly in the veins of the master, and the younger talents start to snap at his heels.
And slowly experience becomes no substitute for energy, and genius finally loses out to sheer hunger – and that is what happened on Centre Court on Sunday.
When I think of the great Wimbledon champions of my lifetime, I think of the pathetic moment when they were eventually tipped off the pedestal. Borg was mighty in his time, wielding his wooden racket two-fisted like a Viking Berserker; and yet even in the moment when he snogged that trophy for the fifth time, his tendons were becoming invisibly less full of snap, and his fabled monocular vision was getting imperceptibly foggier, and he was ripe to be displaced by the genius of McEnroe; and then McEnroe’s magic was gone and everyone idolised Becker until Becker made his last leap and the era of Sampras was ushered in, Sampras who served like a bullet to win seven times until he was himself usurped by some gigantic Croat with a gigantic serve.
Now the amazing Federer, who has won five times in a row, has both depressed and consoled us with the fact of his professional mortality.
Of course I was on the side of Federer, especially since his opponent had a peculiar habit of bending forward before every point and tugging from behind at the gusset of his shorts. It was very rum indeed.
There we were in the Royal Box, with the President of Switzerland and assorted dukes, duchesses and the heir to the Spanish throne, and Rafael Nadal seemed to be unable to sort out what is known as a serious wedgie.
I pointed this out delicately to one of the tennis supremos, and he said that it was a well-known Nadal phenomenon.
This pant-twanging was a ritual, he said, like saying a Hail Mary, and the challenger had been doing it since he was eight. I suppose I might have forgiven him for that, because we all suffer from some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, but sometimes there was also frankly too much Nadal soundtrack to the rally.
The Swiss champion was silent, and almost impassive, while Nadal would yelp with each shot like a loose fan-belt. And while both men played shots of extraordinary creativity, and while I found myself rubbing my palms and jiggling up and down at the suspense of the rallies, it struck me that Federer was the true merchant of style.
Nadal certainly carved huge quantities of topspin from the ball, and yet there was a rasping clunking noise as he hit it. Federer seemed to serve faster and more smoothly, with less effort, and, though he made a few unforced errors, there were some shots which seemed to approach the Platonic ideal.
The Greek philosopher said there were these things out there called the Forms, eternal perfect examples of worldly things.
Well, we don’t need to look for the Form of the cross-court forehand zinger – it was forged on Sunday afternoon by the racket of Roger. And yet, somehow, we all knew that Nadal had the edge.
Every time the rally went beyond five or six shots, you felt the Spaniard was the more dangerous, and so the crowd did that wonderful British thing: they got behind the underdog. Ro-ger! clap, clap, clap, they went, and as the evening wore on, the passions rose.
The crowd started to gasp at every point like a huge vacuum cleaner. Roger recovered his energy, and the shades lengthened, and the pigeons started to swoop across the court as though they had no idea of the titanic battle taking place.
It was just magic, and it struck me that it could not happen anywhere else but the Centre Court at Wimbledon.
I feel grateful beyond words to have been there and, if you really want to know, the last incumbent of my present office didn’t go once in eight years – and refused to visit this wonderful adornment of London, even when the tournament was not in progress.
How can we hope to produce a champion of our own, when some politicians are still so idiotic as to pretend it is an elitist sport?
So that’s why I felt it necessary to watch the tennis on Sunday, Steve.
It was not only a joy to take the hospitality of the Royal Box. It was a civic duty.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph 08 July 2008 with the heading, “Norris, old sport, I was fulfilling my civic duty at Centre Court.”]