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Visitor's view: Wimbledon's Library

The Kenneth Ritchie Wimbledon Library
by Benjamin Chatfield
Friday 16 May 2014

Did you know that Wimbledon has its own library? Wimbledon resident Ben Chatfield went to visit it, and wrote up his experience for Wimbledon.com...

If someone had asked me to describe the All England Club’s tennis library, as a hopeless tennis romantic I would have dreamily conjured up a subterranean warren of shelves heaving with past programmes, umpires’ score sheets and every tennis title known to man. It would smell of deep mahogany with hints of freshly cut grass, worn leather and lemon barley water. It would, of course, be wonderfully quiet.

This description would have proved pretty spot on as that is exactly what it is. Buried deep underground in a tangential area of the museum building, the library is a treat of the highest order, and whilst not open in a public sense you can email requests for information or arrange an appointment.

Named ‘The Kenneth Ritchie Wimbledon Library’ after one Lord Ritchie from Dundee, a former Wimbledon Committee member, it opened in 1977 but only took up its current home in 2006. The vast collection includes British and international lawn tennis books, annuals, periodicals, programmes, postcards, videos, cassettes, DVDs and a plethora of paraphernalia from over ninety tennis-playing countries. This includes every issue of an international kaleidoscope of magazines going back a hundred years including Tennis, Tenis, Tenisz, Tennis Oggi, Tenis Express, Tennis Degrisi, Tenis Lehti, Tennis Medici, Tennis U.S.A., Tennis Week, Tennis Match, ACE Tennis, Tennishead and Tennis View. Phew. Then there’s Revija Tennis, Happy Tennis and Scottish Tennis before Match, Match Point, Match Ball … the list goes on longer than a Tim Henman teatime cliffhanger.

There are press cutting books featuring every mention of the tournament from every British newspaper all lovingly, achingly, recorded in leather bound tomes whose sombre spines belie the riot of headlines and dazzling articles inside. Relive the relative (pre-Andy) joy of Jeremy Bates’ 1992 run in all its jingoistic glory, the glee that surrounded Andre Agassi’s ‘predominantly white’ reveal in 1991, the still-extraordinary achievement of Martina Navratilova’s ninth in 1990 and of course the unabashed fervour of that balmy day in July last year.

Programmes and leaflets provide some of the most fascinating insights with anything and everything from an 1875 pamphlet covering the Rules of Lawn Tennis, a Davis Cup programme from the 1912 Australasia v British Isles Davis Cup match to the 1949 Derbyshire Lawn Tennis Association Report.

The book section is truly irresistible. You remember that tennis book you cherished when you were a child? The one with the green spine, tennis net design and well-thumbed pages crammed with photos of tennis stars of yesteryear? They have that here. Probably two copies. And all that came before and after. Perhaps most fascinating, and rarest, of all are the fictional books. The titles are wonderful in themselves. From the predictable; The Real Spin, Tie-Breaker and Forty-Love to the utterly unpredictable – Breakfast at Wimbledon, Set to Kill, Pam Plays Doubles, and, best of all, Game, Set & Danger. And somewhere in between the lot is the quite wonderful-sounding Tennis & The Meaning of Life.

The tireless work and painstaking attention to detail found in the library are a reminder that Wimbledon is very much a 52-week tournament, one whose influence carries way beyond the boundaries of sport and a phenomenon in which rich heritage meets the perpetual thrill of stories not yet written.

The Kenneth Ritchie library possesses a plethora of tennis thrills and titbits. In this incredible sunken box of delights are the hidden bookcases of the ‘Miscellaneous’ wing and the rarely seen world of pulp tennis fiction.

In the world of non-fiction it could be argued that tennis has yet to provide its Fever Pitch, Moneyball or Seabiscuit (although Arthur Ashe’s Days of Grace and John McEnroe’s Serious are up there). Even though the wider world of sports fiction is not the strongest of literary movements it must be said that it can still be enormous fun. The genre here can be roughly divided in to two; the sparse section of ex-players trying their skilled tennis hands with the quill and then the larger, if still rarefied, world of general tennis fiction.

After one of the more colourful careers in the history of the game (including to friendships with Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn) “Big Bill” Tilden became arguably the first ex-player to replace grip with plume when he published a perky short story titled It’s All In The Game in 1922. Suzanne Lenglen’s The Love Game, an unsurprisingly romantic view, followed in 1925 and in 1939 her just-the-one-time rival, Helen Wills, released the brilliantly titled Death Serves An Ace. Neither book matched their authors’ seismic effect on the game, but no doubt amused them both enormously.

Flash forward thirty-odd years and, as his fiery career drew to a close, Ilie Nastase fired off a couple of last entertaining missives in the form of pulp tennis fiction classics The Net and Break Point. The latter containing the immortal opening lines, “He drove with his left hand, pivoting the big car smoothly southwest, through the streets of Paris, while the other wandered languorously over the girl’s thigh.”

Martina Navratilova followed her retirement with 1994’s The Total Zone whose dust jacket teases with the not-entirely-fictional: “Sixteen year-old Audrey Armat is a combination of sugar and steel: Grand Slam contender with a scorched-earth serve and hub of the $9million-business that is Audrey Armat Enterprises. She rarely loses.”

Away from the ex-players, and the occasional higher brow work apart (Lars Gustaffson’s The Tennis Players springs to mind), the fiction positively erupted in the seventies and eighties with a deluge of lurid and sensational titles. And it is on the dust jackets and inside the covers that the far-fetched fun really begins. A selection of the very finest includes:

Jane & Burt Boyar’s World Class: “….Billy Cook, who had dragged himself up from the squalor of Cockney London to become Britain’s top player.” Andy Murray seemed a long way off in the 70s.

Derek Lambert’s Grand Slam: “I’m forty-one, this is my last Wimbledon. I’ve got to get something out of it.” This is giving me hope aged 39.

Jean MacGibbon’s Pam Plays Doubles: “When Pam Marsh goes to a large new school and finds she is not the first-class tennis player she had imagined herself to be, she is bitterly disappointed.” We’ve all been there.

Russell Braddon’s The Finalists may well be the closest to a bona fide classic. It’s like Top Gun with rackets and tells the story of the rivalry between the blond Russian defector purist, Vissarion Tsarapkin (Rastus), and Gary King, the ruddy Australian singles champ. Like Derek Zoolander not being able to turn left, King clumsily lets it slip that he is actually afraid of Wimbledon. When Rastus tells him he will win Wimbledon he comes irascible and snaps back,

“Do I have to spell it out?”

“That you are frightened of the Centre Court?”

“How long have you known?”

Quite brilliant.

Aside from the pulp classics there is one abiding tome that I predict will come to be seen as the high watermark. Tennis & The Meaning of Life is edited by Jay Jennings, former Features Editor at Tennis Magazine, and is a world away from the pulp fiction. With contributors including Vladimir Nabokov, A.A. Milne and Beryl Bainbridge, it wisely leans on brevity with a collection of short extracts and poems celebrating the game. With back-cover accolades from the likes of Peter Bodo and David Foster Wallace it certainly sets itself aside and Bud Collins description of “wonderful writers who treated the wonderful game of tennis in a distinctive way you won’t find on the sports pages” says it all. It is an inspired collection proving that, if you delve deep enough into the library shelves, there are genuine classics in every genre."

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