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4 June 2023

Gods of Tennis took me back to when the players were rock stars

So much hair and testosterone, and yet, really, they were only little boys.

By Rachel Cooke

Quiet please! as the umpire says. For I have a confession to make, which is that while I know I should make a show of being riveted by the struggles of Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King to improve the universe for black people and women respectively, I was a just a tiny bit bored by the first episode of Gods of Tennis, only really perking up during the second film, in which Björn Borg’s marvellously pert bum appears. All my life, I’ve waited for the opportunity to write a few words about this neat Swedish backside and now, here it is. Forgive me, then, if I don’t say too much about Ashe’s visit to South Africa in 1973, or King’s victory over that sexist pig, Bobby Riggs, in the same year.

The problem with both of these events is that, however significant, they’re already so well rehearsed, especially King’s match against Riggs (in 2017, they made a movie about it: Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell). But then, this may be the trouble with Gods of Tennis overall. While Gods of Snooker was radiantly parochial – the green baize was Thatcher’s Britain in microcosm – its successor tells a story of international celebrity: everyone in it was, and is, famous everywhere; it comes with no dark nooks and crannies (unless you count… but no, let us not go there). And while Gods of Snooker kept the pot shots to a minimum, this series comes with an inordinately high number of rallies, most of which it’s doubtless possible to watch on YouTube already, should that be your thing.

King is still magnificent. “I’m not finished yet,” she tells us, her lipstick the colour of black pudding. But she’s not about to lob any new revelations over the producers’ net; we’ve heard before everything she says about the unfairness of women’s sport in the Seventies  (until she came along, determined to change things, their winnings were a pittance compared to the men’s). And so, the mind turns sheepishly to the fun stuff: to the late Seventies and early Eighties, when tennis was suddenly as popular as rock music. “Blimey, was that really a close-up of Borg lifting the waistband of his shorts the better that he might spray down there with deodorant?” I thought, vowing not to blink again. In the era (almost over, now) of Federer and Djokovic, it’s with fidgety amazement that one considers Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. So much hair and testosterone, and yet, really, they were only little boys.

The soundtrack plays Baccara’s “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”, but at the age of 17 (as Borg was when he first hit Wimbledon), boogying, in its fullest sense, is still beyond most of us; we’re cramped by surplus hormones, wild expectations and unaccountable urges. When Borg looks back now – the hair, though as white as his nylon tracksuit, is still luxuriant – you realise how much was kept inside. He simply wasn’t built for adulation, however graceful he remained in the face of the girls who pawed him; it was this, he says, that really induced his retirement at 26. Equally, while everyone remembers his rival’s frustrated explosions, what we only register as we watch the old footage is the confusion that sometimes used to cross McEnroe’s face: his rising sense, perhaps, that he was unable fully to control himself.

As for Connors, with his Playmobil hair and his queenly mother, Gloria, always in tow, he is ever easy to understand, which might be just as well given that he alone of this series’ subjects is not interviewed (his former fiancée, Chris Evert, appears in all three films, the last of which focuses on her rivalry with Martina Navratilova). His charm – that grin, those one-liners – is surface thin, covering him like mace over nutmeg, and yet, it’s irresistible. Thock-thock, goes the ball. Boom-boom, goes the heart.

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His relationship with her having ended, Connors – the brute! – turned up to watch Evert’s 1975 Wimbledon semi-final against Billie Jean King with the actress Susan George on his arm. Evert had won the first set and was leading the second, but on catching sight of him, her concentration left her; victory would belong to King. But does Evert blame Connors for this now? I would say not. Three husbands later, her smile tells its own story: of talent that still somehow made time for fun; of astonishing machines that were nevertheless touchingly human.

Gods of Tennis
BBC Two, 11 June, 9pm;
available on iPlayer

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[See also: First we canonised Emma Raducanu – then we hounded her off the tennis court]

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine