Cliff Richard, Wimbledon 1996

Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

A quarter-final match between Dutchman Richard Krajicek and three-in-a-row Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras always promised much but no one could have predicted such a stirring response as that given by the Guardian when it was all over:

“Something magical happened in Centre Court on Wednesday 3 July, an event in its own way every bit as much a testament to the fortitude of the native British spirit as Elizabeth I’s rallying of the troops against the Armada some years back. “

Yet bizarrely it wasn’t the tennis that made this match so strangely memorable, but what happened when the rains came and the tennis stopped.

At a Wimbledon already badly interrupted by inclement weather, the last thing a troubled refeee and the increasingly fractious crowsds wanted was a wet Wednesday. But they got it all the same. After play began at 12.30, games were just 2-all in the first set when the heavens opened yet again. Three hours later, with the green covers raised tent-like over the court, it was still bucketing down.

Sandwiches had been eaten, books read, crosswords finished and British resolve tested to such limits that the bedraggled crowd were beginning to look mighty glum.

Enter Sir Cliff Richard, the Peter Pan of Pop, an avid regular at the Championships.

“Would he, perchance, be prepared to deliver a song or two to raise the flagging spirits of the Centre Court faithful?” ventured a Wimbledon official.

Cliff answered in the affirmative and it was just like the war all over again. Appearing in the royal box with a microphone, the 55-year-old icon began his repertoire with, naturally, ‘Summer Holiday’. With unwavering eccentricity the British fans cast off their dampened spirits and joined in.
‘The Young Ones’ swiftly followed. Then ‘Bachelor Boy’ and ‘Livin’ Doll’. As the scene became ever more surreal, Sir Cliff was joined by a backing group including Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, Gigi Fernandez and one-time Queen of All England Virginia Wade.

As the crowd swayed in time to the ditties and Cliff danced with a black lady corporal on royal box security duty, the unthinkable happened. The sun came out and resumption of play was announced.
Cliff left the stage with a cheery

“I never thought I’d play the Centre Court”

and Sampras and Krajicek resumed battle once more. Most of the crowd present that day forget that, between further rain breaks, they saw Krajicek take a two set to love lead before a further shower finally curtailed play just after 8 pm at 1-1 in the third.

Being one of those days, even that fate came courtesy of a Wimbledon oddity as it was a delay in covering the court that finally drew the curtain on this unpredictable affair. Ground staff member Mark Hillaby failed to follow the drill, ending up in hospital after tripping and banging his head during the attempted cover up.

For the record, Krajicek later prevailed over Sampras and went on to win his first Wimbledon crown, but it was Cliff who was that year’s star. His impromptu turn was suely the best Centre Court performance by a British man since Fred Perry completed his hat trick of wins in 1936.

Indian tennis player Vijay Armitraj

From Tennis strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

When the Australians were drawn to play India away in the Davis Cup Eastern Zone final of 1973, none of them expected an easy ride.
Skulduggerous practice as par for the course everywhere in that competition and India, moreover was always regarded as a bit risky, even by Aussies with larger-hardened stomachs and an in-built confidence to ply their trade anytime, anywhere and against anyone. But what they actually got exceeded their worst nightmares.

They didn’t really expect beautifully manicured grass and, even though the Indians were quite capable of delivering it, the hosts didn’t like to disappoint their guests. Lawn tennis, after all, had long since been played on many different surfaces – clay, sand, gravel, concrete, shale, ash, tarmac, rubber, wood, tiles, carpet, parquet blocks – it was just a case of what ingredients they’d opt for.
Their recipe was imaginative enough. Starting with a foundation of sand and brick, then overlaying fine gavel, they topped it off with a layer of surface clay appetizingly mixed with liberal helpings of ripe cow dung, all left to bake hard under the fierce midday sun.
At least they had no trouble finding the courts: “Just follow yer nose mate” was the Aussie cry.

Equally keen to live up to their reputation in the matter of stadium design, the Indians had lost no time in commissioning the construction of a state-of-the-art arena at the Madras Gymkhana Club – unfortunately, the state-of-the-art 1973 style was distinctly Primitive School. The whole 15,000-capacity stadium was built in just ten days; timber poles and planks were lashed together, using the odd nail here and thee where real strength was needed and the whole thing was topped off with a roof of dried palm fronds. Health and safety inspectors and fire officers were not part of the package.
Yet, strange as this venue was for what was, after all, the twentieth and not the nineteenth century, that wasn’t the worst of it for the gallant Australians.

As the veteran squad (they called them Dad’s Army) – of Newcombe, Anderson, Masters, Giltinan and Cooper – arrived in Madras, they were not so much given a warm welcome as a pretty darn hot one. The Pakistani terrorist group Black December had issued death threats against them as part of an effort to get the Indian government to release 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. By way of a warm up they’d blown up an airline office a few days before.

If ever the resolve of a tennis team had been tested this was surely it, but the Australians agreed to stay after a personal guarantee of safety was offered by the assistant commissioner of police. Meals were checked for poison, police with machine guns guarded the visitors day and night and all letters and packages were intercepted. Always at the players’ side was the best sharp-shooter the Madras police could muster – dressed in casual civvies, his ever-present sun hat certainly looked the part but actually concealed his revolver.

It is to the eternal credit of the Australians that they overcame what must surely rank as the worst conditions ever to prevail at a Davis Cup match to win the tie without losing a rubber. They went on to win the trophy that year, taking the Indian experience in their side like true pros.

The story that John Newcombe, asked to sum up the trip in a few words, simply replied that “The courts were crap”, is almost certainly apocryphal.

Davis Cup protests, 1977

From Tennis strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Newport Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles, is a long way from the english lawns upon which tennis was first played. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as if ever there was an occasion when the vicarage garden party image of the game was irrevocably laid to rest it was at this West Coast resort on Sunday 17 April 1977.

This is the tale of the minister of the Church, the oil slick, the racket attack and the mass demonstration. it doesn’t sound like an everyday story of ordinary tennis folk but then it’s not everyday that the United States plays South Africa in the Davis Cup at the height of the apartheid debate.the tension had been mounting for over a decade.

The serious side to this strange affair had been a major problem for years. Official United Nations policy was to strongly discourage all sporting contact with ‘racist South African sports bodies’, but many nations purpotedly ‘put sport above politics’ and played on. Anti-apartheid activists said that such blind-eye attitudes simply condoned racism and there had been trouble almost everywhere South African representatives played, not simply directed against them but their hosts as well.

In 1968 the Sweden vs Rhodesia tie in Bastad had to be moved to Bandol in the South of France as a 1,500-strong rioting mob, some armed with iron bars, lumps of concrete and bottles, made play impossible.

A year later, but rather gentler, it was Great Britain‘s turn as bags of flour hurtled over the stands to bomb the court at the Redlands Club in Bristol. other nations, meanwhile, did refuse to play, none more nobly than India who passed up the chance of glory by declining to face South Africa in the 1974 final.
‘Dwight Davis must have turned in his grave,’ said Lawn Tennis magazine of the man who founded the competition back in 1900 in the spirit of friendly national rivalry. Hence the enhanced significance when South Africa travelled to ‘white supremacist’ United States in 1977.

Trouble they expected and trouble they got. Seven hundred demonstrators constantly chanted ‘South Africa go home’ outside the court arena but both sides refused to be deterred from simply playing tennis. Police ejected early court invaders and amongst the real fans a spirit of ‘the match must go on’ began to build.

It was after America had built a 2 rubbers to 0 lead that a church minister decided on more direct action. Home pairing Stan Smith and Bob Lutz were already 2 sets to 0 ahead against Frew McMillan and Byron Bertram when 29-year-old black activist Reverend Roland Dortsch rushed wildly on to the United States end of the court and emptied a plastic bottle of motor oil over the green surface. His colleague Deacon Alexander had his on bottle snatched before he could add to the spreading slick.

But as the American party saw red, the Reverend got more than he bargained for. Team captain Tony Trabert, heroic veteran of many Davis Cup matches during the much calmer 1950s, flailed at him with a racket backed by the cheering 6,000 crowd.
It took 41 minutes to clean the court and just a little longer for America to clinch the tie with a 7-5 6-1 3-6 6-3 victory. ‘UNITED STATES CLEAN UP’, said the Times.

Scenes very foreign to the game of lawn tennis they certainly were but Trabert was unrepentant:

“I brought a good old graphite racket along as a weapon and just hit them a couple of times,” he explained later.

The South African captain backed him all the way:

“I was very happy with the genuine crowd and the police have been wonderful,” he told reporters. “What Trabert did to the court invaders really makes you feel good.”

Strange demonstrations, strange retaliations and strange reactions. Who could blame Dwight Davis if he’s still turning today?