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A tribute to Laurie Pignon

Laurie Pignon.
by Ron Atkin
Wednesday 4 April 2012

The passing of Laurie Pignon at the age of 93 will be marked with particular sadness among those in the tennis-watching public who recall the days when the people who played it for a living were prepared - and able - to mix with the fans and the media folk who wrote and commentated on their genius.

Laurie reported his first Championships in 1938 and his last one in 1989. He called it "Fifty years of fun", adding, "Tennis has a reputation for being a selfish sport but there was an awful lot of goodwill in my time". He wrote for the Daily Sketch from 1945 after returning from five years as a prisoner of war and then from 1971 for the Daily Mail when those two papers were merged until he was required by the company's regulations to retire at the age of 65 in 1983.

The Mail brought him back in 1989 to cover Chris Evert's last Wimbledon and then again in 1991 when Bjorn Borg unwisely attempted a comeback at the Monte Carlo Open, but as that rarity among tennis journalists, a member of the All England Club, he was always around at the time of The Championships, proudly sporting his All England Club lapel badge and prepared to offer advice and liquid refreshment to the working press.

Though he never complained to his employers, Pignon once told me, "Retirement was a blow. I felt good, I was on top of my job". Typically, he told the Mail's editor, David English (a tennis-playing friend) that he would like to exit on a spectacular note with a flight by Concorde to cover his final tournament, the US Open, in September 1983. The Mail obliged.

Despite calling his job "fun", Pignon was a talented and dedicated journalist, always keen to beat the opposition to a story even in the days when co-operation rather than confrontation was the norm among tennis journalists. An example came at the 1953 Championships after Jaroslav Drobny had beaten Budge Patty 8-6 16-18 3-6 8-6 12-10 in a marathon third-round match, which ended at 9.15pm.

"My story was on the sports editor's desk by 9.30 and the others were still writing like mad", he recalled. "There were no post-match interviews in those days so I just walked into the dressing room. Patty was sitting, head between his legs, he could hardly talk, and Drobny was in the massage room. I asked Drob if he was all right and he said 'no', so I went up to the club bar, bought a large brandy and took it down to him." Thus another Pignon exclusive was achieved.

Pignon became friendly with Maureen (Little Mo) Connolly, the American who was never beaten at Wimbledon and once took her to lunch at the Dog and Fox pub in Wimbledon village. Her request for Chicken Maryland mystified the waiter in those days of austerity. "She had spam and chips like the rest of us," Pignon said.

Inevitably, as Borg discovered with his out-of-date wooden racket in 1991, Pignon too was to realise that the world of tennis reporting had moved on.

After watching Borg's defeat, he went to the media room. "I got out my Olivetti portable, my flask of whisky and my pipe and prepared to start writing, but all the others were staring into screens and drinking Coca-Cola."

Pignon, who listed Rod Laver and Maureen Connolly as his favourite players, continued to play tennis into his late 80s, wisely choosing his wife, the ex-England hockey captain Melvyn Hickey, as his partner. They had the perfect arrangement, he said. "I shouted 'Yours' and she ran."

Laurie Pignon's unfailingly exuberant presence at The Championships will be missed by all those at the AELTC and the media world who were fortunate enough to have known him.

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