It Was Game, Set & Match - To Middle Age!
One of my unhappiest days in Bletchley occurred about my 58th birthday.
Four of us were in the midst of a good game of tennis on the Central Gardens hard courts when quite suddenly my legs seized up in a kind of cramp I had never known before.
Next morning I saw my doctor – it took me quite a time to walk there. He examined me. Then came the blow.
He told me my tennis days were over. The following week I turned up at the courts for the same doubles. I took two runs from the baseline to the net – and there it was again. So ended 40 years, on and off, of enjoyable participation in one of the world’s great games.
I was dejected. Tennis had been a good part of my life. The year-round facilities of Central Gardens and the company of other players I had enjoyed there had been a reason for remaining in the town. And now it was all over. Furthermore, I knew enough about the strains of the game of bowls to realise I would be no good for that either.
I recognised, of course, that I had had a fairly good innings. I had still been able to run about at an age well beyond the average despite a congenital malformation of the right foot.
I also knew that parting would be a wrench. “Billy” Billingham had told me so. But then he had been well over 60 when what he called the saddest day in his life happened to him and he gave away that bag of strings he called his racquet.
I wonder what he would have thought about the indoor courts at the new Leisure Centre and the playing fee? I also wonder whether it is true that one of Bletchley’s best known players painted his balls black so as to be able to see them better against that multi-coloured maze of tennis, badminton and netball lines?
Quite early in my working life I had to give up team games and start reporting them instead. For personal recreation I had to fall back on some game which could be played any old time. I chose tennis because it was cheapest and liveliest.
After two or three seasons with a cowpat club, I joined an old established tennis club – one which is now equipped with floodlights and all the rest of it. I managed to retain contact with that club right up to the war, though missing some seasons through changing working locations. I also met my wife there.
During that time I developed a useful service and forehand, entered tournaments and won two or three. Then came the war and about seven seasons without a game. When I restarted in Bletchley with the town’s mixed club I found my service had quite gone and I never anywhere near regained it, try as I might.
However, I was then about 40, my best days were obviously over and I settled down simply to enjoying life at Central Gardens, where George Tattam was the groundsman. For a few seasons I was chairman and occasionally captain of the mixed club. Later I played mainly in privately-booked doubles, both men’s and mixed.
The Bletchley League was started the year after I packed up. I could have enjoyed that, but it came too late for me.
Court personnel changed with the passing years, but I made many friends there: “Billy” Billingham, Wal Goodman, Alquin Jones, Norman Smith, George Lines, Bill Betts, Wal Pacey, Norah James, Mrs. Flack, Ruby Holdom, Ann Harris and three times as many more at various intervals of time.
One year Wal Pacey won the county singles championship. He and Bill Betts also won the tennis section of an international trade unions’ Olympics held in Paris. Bill carried the Union Jack at the head of the British contingent in the parade.
In the early 1960s Alquin Jones, with whom I played more than anyone, suffered a knee injury and had to be operated on. When he came out of hospital he did not look as though he would ever play again.
I had been considering packing up and giving more attention to other interests. So when that happened to Alquin I did pack up. But only for a year. Early the following year he came seeking me for a game – just to try his leg out.
I couldn’t refuse and I am glad I did not. By sheer determination over the twelve months he had become fit again. We collected some good partners and opponents and I went on to enjoy myself more than ever for several more years until my own crash came.
I could not resume. But Alquin, who is older than my 66 years went on to play in the Bletchley League and was still playing last season.
One good thing about coming to Bletchley was that it enabled me to watch the Wimbledon tournament one day each year. Previously I had watched only Yorkshire county games, a Davis Cup day at Harrogate, and the original Tilden-Budge-Vine-Stoeffen professional “circus” at Bradford.
Wimbledon opened my eyes tremendously, with its top-class stuff being played on a whole range of courts simultaneously. One day I met Wal Pacey there. Looking down on the back courts, he remarked “It makes you wonder what that game is we play in Bletchley, doesn’t it?”
Quite so. But my tennis days were happy ones for me. We played for the fun of it, casting all other cares to the wind for a while and inwardly rejoicing when every now and then we managed to hit a perfect shot.
Who was the finest player I have ever seen in action? It is almost impossible in any sport to compare one era with another.
But in tennis I think I must award the crown to Tilden. After being out of tennis several years, he came back and took the reigning champion, Bobby Riggs, to five sets. Tilden was then aged 50 or more. Who else could have done that?
Could anything to be done to improve the game? Yes. Cut out the second service. That would cut a lot of the tall smash and grab boys down to size and restore more artistry to the game. And who would have been champion then? The ineffable Ken Rosewall for years and years.