WHEN SPORT LOSES ITS SCOWL

2 July 2006

Sport should be about laughter as well as tears, about beauty as well as battle. In London last week we remembered Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie at St Paul’s Cathedral, while at Wimbledon Roger Federer was, well, just Roger Federer.

It was a welcome perspective. Events in Germany have heated up to such a fever pitch that there is a fear of commentators as well as matches finally blowing up, like David Coleman’s head in the famous “I have come too soon” Spitting Image sketch. Sport is important, sport can give a lot of people a sense of purpose and a very few a lot of money. But sport needs to give inspiration – and they didn’t come much more inspiring than Ingleby- Mackenzie.

Of course, Colin’s unique, infectious, cavalier charm spread far wider than the cricket pitch – his famous “in bed before breakfast” 1961 County Championship as Hampshire captain, and his role in admitting women as President of the MCC between 1996 and 1998, are among the recollections. In St Paul’s there were groundsmen  and newspapermen along with stars of stage and screen and a thousand others, all drawn to pay tribute to someone with the magic touch of making you feel better just by his very presence.

Yet it was sport, and its “go for glory” potential that defined “Ingles”. Walking away from the cathedral still digesting a wonderful service with a musical mix from calypso to The Messiah was at first to feel sad at the passing of an era when it would have been unthinkable for any so- called “sportsman” to roll around faking a face injury as Thierry Henry did on Wednesday night.

But there was the train to Wimbledon to catch. You thought of Federer in victory, of Tim Henman in defeat, of Rafael Nadal due shortly on court. Their world may seem a long way from that of the admiral’s son born in Dartmouth back in 1933, but go a little closer and you are not so sure.

Of course the physical commitment and fitness are light years on from the Ingleby-Mackenzie age, when Colin’s response to EW Swanton’s insistence on an 11 o’clock curfew on a West Indies tour was “that’s a bit tricky Jim, the match starts at 11.30”. All around the Wimbledon courts are young people from every part of the world who are there because they have spent day after repetitive day working and working at their fitness and their game.

But it’s a fact that for most of them money is tight and conditions moderate. What sustains them is the feeling that they are somewhere close to that dream of glory. They may not get there but at Wimbledon they are only a court away from Federer or Nadal, who on Thursday afternoon was having to draw on all the sporting absolutes to dig himself out against a breezy, Florida-based Californian called Robert Kendrick, who even some of the American journalists had never heard of.

After the five sets were over Rafa got about as close as tennis can get to football controversy when standing up in his press conference and saying something in “Spanglais” about accusations that he takes too long between points. But he cooled down quickly enough to say how much he was looking forward to his encounter with Andre Agassi, how much he appreciated being on Centre Court.  Kendrick appreciated it, too. Beforehand he did not know how to get there. “When they were taking me down,” he said, “I was waiting for Rafa a little bit. I didn’t know where we were going. Then there it was. Kind of eerie.”

Kendrick will now go back to riding his bike down Periwinkle Avenue near his home on Florida’s Sanibel Island, but Federer will usher us into the week with his unspoken challenge to the whole world of sport – that you don’t have to be boorish to be the king. In just a few days he has reminded us of his claims to be the No 1 individual practitioner on the globe and has conducted himself off the court with a lightness of touch as deft and charming as anything he does on it.

Being at Wimbledon last week was to wonder if the players and those around them might seem like a sporting Lilliput compared to the footballing giants across the Channel. With Nadal and Federer in action and with the incomparable John McEnroe as a world champion analyst in the commentary box, the fears have not been fulfilled.

The week’s events were made especially sharp as the cool of the Wimbledon morning coincided with the 90th anniversary broadcast from the battlefield of the Somme. Sport had been put in its place.

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