The box from the attic contained an assortment of his daughter Leila’s birth and christening gifts, the delicate ones wrapped in pages of the Daily Mail from January 1982. Margaret Thatcher’s son was lost in the Sahara. Liverpool led Division One.
Roy took the newspaper pages downstairs, leaving their contents – a Flower Fairies cup, a Beatrix Potter bowl, a canteen of tiny silver spoons – on the landing in the box. He read the pages for two hours, ate breakfast late, decided to work from home, took the car to the filling station, had a big salad for lunch and sat down to wait for Andy Murray.
This meant watching Kvitova, the Czech defending women’s champion, who Roy had forgotten all about. To him she was one among a rotating cast of top female players with eastern European names who appeared, disappeared, and almost always sounded American when they spoke. Only one of them stood out just a little from the crowd, because she was Rory McIlroy’s girlfriend. Roy was pretty confident that her surname began with W.
Kvitova won easily. Roy tried to pay attention, imagining Lucy, his younger daughter, scolding him for only being interested in woman players if they were celebs. Such criticism would not have stuck to his father Don. He’d offered firm views about a wide range of female Wimbledon contestants for at least three decades. Most of his favoured players wore visible frilly knickers and always lost prettily in two sets. The rest were British and he backed them unconditionally, especially against opponents of whom he disapproved.
Roy recalled Don’s robust dislike of Billie Jean King for being too competitive, too brash and generally too American, a viewpoint Gwen had shared. They had greeted King’s defeat by Anne Jones in the Wimbledon ladies final of 1969 as a triumph for modest British pluck over pushy Yank vulgarity.
Many years later Kristie had mentioned to Roy that a short time before Jones’s great triumph eyebrows had been raised when she’d married a Birmingham businessman old enough to be her dad. Roy had remembered the BBC cameras alighting on him and thinking it was strange he was so old. He had no memory, though, of either Don or Gwen passing comment. Little had been said either about Virginia Wade, who won in 1977. Gwen: “She isn’t married, is she?” Don: “Isn’t she?”
Other unorthodoxies among lady champions had been received less equably. Navratilova had stirred in Don an uncomprehending moral outrage condensed in the barked dismissal, “Butch!” Navratilova’s rise to Queen Martina, darling of the Centre Court, had failed to moderate his No Surrender stance, even though it strained his alliance with Gwen. “Her personal life is her own business,” Gwen had firmly said one day and Don’s tail had retreated between his legs.
Roy recognised the breadth of Wimbledon’s appeal and that it was a bellwether of national attitudes, although he never thought of it in such terms. He was, in fact, more conscious, and acutely so, of the hopes and obligations it imposed on home players.
Tim Henman hadn’t managed to meet them – a measure of how impossibly high they were. Murray was better equipped as a player, but even as the Scot thrashed his first opponent at the All-England – in fact, because the thrashing was so sound – Roy feared the worst: Murray would never play that well again; he’d never hit those heights against the very best; he was bound to fall short and so ensure that the ratchet of longing for a home Wimbledon win would be wound up tighter still; pressure unasked for yet still imposed, and with it the threat of endless failure. Roy wasn’t sure he could cope.
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