Top seeds at the Royal Albert Hall usually include names like Elton John, Andre Previn, Paul McCartney and Sting. But once a year, a group of very well known but not so young tennis players arrive to compete in the Aegon Masters Seniors Championships on a court that just about fits on the well of the floor.
Surrounding it, the temporary seating is close enough for a wide forehand to catch you on the nose while above, languishing in gilt-edged boxes, corporate guests dine on champagne and smoked salmon. When Queen Victoria opened this imposing, circular building in 1871, it could not have been what she envisioned. Originally designed as a science museum, the Hall quickly became a venue for all manner of musical performances.
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But tennis was introduced in the 1970’s when Lamar Hunt brought his World Championship Tennis (WCT) to London. Guests wore dinner jackets in those days and Ilie Nastase tried to catch the mood by appearing for his match wearing a black tie with his tennis shirt.
Things are a little more casual these days, and that’s just how this year’s players like it. They don’t come any more laid back than Patrick Rafter, the two-time U.S. Open champion, who gave the crowd of 4,000 — not too short of capacity — a reminder of how to serve and volley.
After beating the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, Rafter, who was making his first appearance here, said how much he enjoyed the atmosphere.
“I was a little nervous, actually, because I’ve always wanted to play here,” he said. “But I served and volleyed OK. Just a step slower. And I hit about five forehands into the bottom of the net, so that was pretty typical of the way I used to play.”
Earlier, in the players lounge, I had found Rafter painting a sponsors logo onto his racket strings as he chatted with a fellow Australian — Peter McNamara, who was icing a dodgy knee — Luke Jensen, Greg Rusedski and the Moroccan Younis El Aynaoui, who remains famous for losing 21-19 in the fifth set to Andy Roddick in a five-hour quarterfinal marathon at the 2003 Australian Open in one of the longest matches in Grand Slam history.
The contrast with the hyped up atmosphere of the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 last week was considerable. These guys have been through the high-velocity, win-at-all-costs stage of their careers and are now just happy to be able to play. Rather than ranking points and prize money, conversation tends to turn to families and children.
El Aynaoui has moved from Barcelona to the French city of Nancy because of the kids.
“Bit more serious for their schooling,” he said. “Dinners Spanish style at 9:00 p.m. and the beach nearby made it difficult.”
Rafter, who comes from a rugged Queensland family of nine siblings, spent a month near Avignon recently.
“I would like to bring the family back to France for a year and give them a bit of culture,” he grinned.
Another contrast to be found between this group and current players is their willingness to assist in the necessary business of selling tickets.
“They have been amazing,” said press officer David Law. “We’ve had three of them on the CNN International early morning sports show and Stefan Edberg didn’t seem to mind at all when we told him he had to be in the studio at 6:00 a.m.”
But, to be fair, Edberg was always very low key in the prima donna stakes and, when he lived in London at the height of his fame — just a few blocks from the Albert Hall — he thought nothing of strap hanging on the Circle Line tube.
In another Wednesday match, Mark Philippoussis, who loost to Rafter in the 1998 U.S. Open final, went down in the third-set tiebreaker to Rusedski and then admitted that he has not totally given up hope of returning to the main ATP tour.
“I’d really love to,” he said. “I’ll just have to see how my knees hold up. I had my last operation (the last of six he has had in his career) five months ago and, at the moment, I am feeling no pain. We shall just have to see how it goes.”
No pain. These guys think no pain is a victory all in itself.
Richard Evans, who commentated at Wimbledon on BBC Radio for 20 years, has been covering tennis since the 1960s and has reported on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is the author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in “Open Tennis.” He lives in Florida but is still on the tour 20 weeks in the year.