AS a television programme, the concept could not be simpler. One hour of prime-time highlights as the world’s best tennis players strive to win their sport’s most celebrated tennis tournament.
The BBC simply could not fail with Today At Wimbledon, the institution that I remember from childhood when Bjorn Borg, the smooth Swede, beat the American rebel with a cause John McEnroe in the epic final of 1980 after that sport-defining fourth-set tie break.
Its jolly and jaunty theme tune signalled summer’s arrival and many great moments on the hallowed courts of SWI9: teenager Boris Becker’s booming serve beating allcomers 30 years ago, Roger Federer’s artistry and Andy Murray’s coming of age on that giddy Sunday two years ago.
And the highlights programme worked. A consummate presenter – Harry Carpenter, Desmond Lynam, Sue Barker or, more recently, the maligned John Inverdale – introduced the action and then discussed the finer points of play with incisive luminaries, like the aforementioned McEnroe, who are not backward in coming forward with a controversial view. Its success was its simplicity.
Yet what did the BBC choose to do in its infinite wisdom? It tinkered with a tried and tested format while disregarding the timeless maxim ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
The net result? A sporting embarrassment to rival the hapless play of the stereotypical no-hoper Brit crashing out on day one. It’s that bad.
The first mistake was to move the set from the BBC’s purpose-built studio at Wimbledon, or a roof-top terrace when the weather gods permit, to The Gatsby Club, one of the more exclusive (and presumably expensive) hospitality venues.
No doubt it also took layers of management committees to devise a set, complete with a bizarre bar, that is supposed to resemble an English country garden memorable for the plastic-looking flowers placed rather too indiscreetly. 0-15 to Auntie’s critics.
The next error was replacing the languid Inverdale with the intense Clare Balding and then changing the show’s name to Wimbledon 2Day (no doubt at great expense to those licence fee payers footing the bill for this makeover’s largesse).
Even though the supposed ‘Saint Clare’ can do no wrong in the eyes of many at the BBC – or should it be the Balding Broadcasting Corporation? – too much of the programme revolves around the overused presenter’s ‘teacher’s pet’ style of broadcasting that has become an infuriating trait since her acclaimed coverage of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
In Lynam’s era, he simply began the show with the words ‘Now to the tennis’. There were no long preambles or affectionate hugs as panellists were introduced. And I didn’t want to know, for example, that last Thursday was World UFO Day. Who cares? 0-30.
And then the gimmicks. I know audience participation is a feature of Balding’s chatshow on BT Sport, but is Today At Wimbledon – sorry, Wimbledon 2Day – any the better for the inclusion of two dozen sunburnt spectators putting their hands up when asked if they were cheering for the talismanic Rafael Nadal or his dreadlocked nemesis Dustin Brown.
Don’t even get me started on some of the more inane discussions like the state of British prospect Liam Broady’s beard rather than the state of grassroots tennis in Britain.
Even the aforementioned McEnroe was left virtually speechless – a broadcasting first – when asked if he ever grew facial hair or something equally irrelevant. Even he didn’t see this line of questioning coming when he prepared his analysis last Wednesday.
And then there was last Thursday night’s opening. As viewers – the most important people of all – awaited the action, they had to endure some smutty banter between Balding and Pat Cash about newly-installed ice baths. I can’t have been the only person sorely tempted to press the off button. 0-40.
It couldn’t get any worse, could it? I’m afraid it did. For, on Thursday night, any analysis about the reasons behind the demise of the aforementioned Nadal was cut short so Balding could giggle her way through some footage of the likable Cash playing tennis with his grandchild in order to prove, I guess, that Australia’s 1987 champion, who celebrated by cavorting his way into the players’ box, is getting old.
Why bother paying for these experts – I guess they do not offer their services for free – and then not allow them to get a word in edgeways? To paraphrase Cash’s great sidekick McEnroe: “You cannot be serious.” I can’t tell you what happened next because I did press the off switch. . Game, set and match.
While others might disagree, my point is a serious one: tennis will be the loser if the BBC persists with such excruciating coverage that compares unfavourably to those light-hearted Saturday morning programmes of yesteryear and which made the career of Noel Edmonds.
This, after all, is a programme that has the potential to inspire a new generation of younger players to attempt to emulate Murray. After all, it only took 77 years for a British player to win the Men’s Singles at the All England Club after the last of Fred Perry’s triumphs in 1936.
The BBC is in a unique position. It holds the broadcasting rights and its coverage can be accessed by all in a golden era for the sport – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal would have been champion in any era. As such, the Corporation was served a winning formula on the proverbial plate.
In contrast, the BBC has also been respectful towards another programme, cricket’s Test Match Special, where change has been more restrained. The voices may have changed – the burr of John Arlott, the jolly japes of Brian Johnston and stridency of Frederick Trueman are long gone – but their successors, headed by Jonathan Agnew and his truculent sidekick Geoffrey Boycott, are mindful of not only their privileged position, but a simple duty to inform and quietly amuse listeners as they prepare to bring the Ashes series to life with their wit and wisdom.
In essence, it is why the tennis highlights have become an endurance test. There was as little as 21 minutes of tennis on some nights last week – with the other 39 minutes devoted to Balding and her fatuous flim-flam.
The most important person is not Clare Balding whose work has suffered as a result of her impossible post-2012 workload and the reluctance of broadcasters to promote new presenters. It is the long-suffering viewer, and that is why the BBC is so at fault for serving up such terrible television.
Jump jockey Brian Toomey puts heroism in perspective
THE true definition of sporting heroism – for the benefit of an over-excited Clare Balding and BBC tennis team – is not Liam Broady, a former junior runner-up at Wimbledon, winning a match in the Men’s Singles after a family rift.
The word ‘hero’ actually refers to “people noted or admired for nobility, courage, outstanding achievements etc” and its misuse detracts from those who do represent this definition – competitors like jump jockey Brian Toomey, who is on the brink of an amazing return to the saddle two years after suffering life-threatening head and brain injuries in a fall.
Having had the privilege of spending a morning on the Middleham gallops with this unassuming 26-year-old who has beaten odds of a million to one in order to return to fitness, there will be no more heartwarming story in the world of sport than Toomey’s intended mount Kings Grey being first past past the post at Southwell this Sunday.
If they prevail it will be comparable to Bob Champion defying cancer, and the tears, to win the 1981 Grand National on Aldaniti.
To me, this is heroism in its truest sense and the over-the-top hyperbole being pontificated at the hallowed tennis courts of SW19 only serves to detract from this achievement’s magnitude.