One of the thrills of attending The Championships is glimpsing former top players from previous decades milling around the grounds as they go about their work as TV commentators or full-time coaches. If there’s a delightful incongruity about seeing the player who once adorned a poster on your bedroom wall going about a nine-to-five day, there’s a genuine frisson of excitement when the grizzlies don their whites and step back on court to compete in the Invitation Doubles and the Senior Invitation Doubles.
Mansour Bahrami, of course, has turned his ‘retirement’ into an art form as the archetypal court jester, with the full range of humorous shots and cheeky skills. For years John McEnroe has had his ‘You cannot be serious’ routine honed panto-perfect. But what about the younger guns such as Mark Philippoussis, Richard Krajicek and Todd Martin? How competitively do they treat their return to the show courts? We asked Mark Petchey, the former British player turned television analyst who is partnering Krajicek this week, to lift the lid on the Legends’ mindset.
“It’s 80 per cent competitive with a 20 per cent sprinkling of fun – unless you’re playing Mansour, when it’s five per cent competitive and 95 per cent entertainment,’ Petchey says. ‘On one level it’s very serious because all of us are competitive and want to do our best, but we also know we’re playing to provide more light-hearted appeal for people after the serious business of the Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ Singles.”
A tennis fan is a nostalgic by nature. We follow players through their careers, remembering their breakthroughs, their upsets, triumphs, trials and tribulations. We wonder how the current crop of top players would match up to the former greats in their prime. Which makes the ‘senior’ format a win-win feature. It’s cool to be able to watch doubles maestros such as Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee and Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis and Bob and Mike Bryan all in different draws at the same tournament.
“It is invitational. You can’t choose your partner, but they try to keep some partnerships from year to year. It is certainly a tradition for the holder to return as a pair to defend their title,” says Petchey, pointing out that this year Greg Rusedski and Fabrice Santoro are back with a reputation to uphold, as well as Pat Cash and Mark Woodforde in the Seniors.
The big attraction of 2013 is the return of John McEnroe, not with his old doubles partner, the beanpole Peter Fleming, but with his younger brother Patrick. “They’re quite close. They won at the French Open last year. They’re going for a career Grand Slam...”
Petchey admits there are two classes of players within the old-boy ranks: “There are the ones who are regular fixtures on the Champions Tour, who come into this tournament with a bit of match fitness. Then there are the rest of us... who have gone into wine tasting and enjoying their gourmet food. Nutritionally, we’re on different levels.’
One thing is for sure, the players’ trademark shots retain the ability to awe opponents and spectators alike. “With Richard [Krajicek], Mark [Philippoussis] and Greg [Rusedski], it’s obviously the serve,” says Petchey. “Last year Mark and Greg were serving faster than the top guys, around 135/136mph. With Wayne Ferreira, it’s still the forehand. With Paul Haarhuis, it’s his speed around the court. Talent never goes.”
Watching the older guys keeps Andy Murray and his peers amused. “They have it on TV and they have a good laugh when we come back into the dressing room. Normally they’re hearing our views of their play on TV, and this gives them an opportunity to be the critic.”
What kind of comments do they make? “That’s best left in the dressing room!”