I’m not sure whether I was more irritated by the triumphant tone of my opponent’s call or by his brazen cheating. My shot had been a good six inches within the baseline. I had known from the moment the ball left my racquet that it was good. I was seventy feet away on the other end of the court and clearly saw it bounce well before the line. My cat could have called it, and my cat knows fuck all about tennis. I couldn’t let him get away with it again. ‘Are you sure?’ I shouted.
‘Perfectly sure. I can even see the mark where it hit the ground. Bad luck, old chap.’
That was as far as my resistance went. I was no John McEnroe, that’s for sure. The etiquette of the game decreed that it was my opponent’s call. He was entirely within his rights to cheat if he wanted to, and there was nothing I could do about it. His claim to see the ball’s mark on an acrylic surface that no tennis ball could ever mark was an outrageous and provocative embellishment. We both knew it, but short of calling him a cheat – which I would never do, could never do – I had no option but to accept it. I internalised my rage and promptly double-faulted to give him the first break of the match.
Any benefit of doubt that I’d been prepared to give my opponent evaporated in that moment. He was a pompous public-school twat; someone who had been brought up to believe he could bend the world to his will. I resented that he had infiltrated our club, a genteel establishment that prided itself on its sportsmanship. What I didn’t realise then was that it was not only a game of tennis that I was on the verge of losing but also our precious club as I knew it.
My irritation continued into the next game. I overhit my first two returns, the second with such power that it shot through the wire mesh netting of the court. I watched my opponent as he shambled off the court to retrieve the ball. How could I be losing to someone with a body mass index like that? He wasn’t a bad player. He’d probably been brought up with a tennis court in his back garden and enough private coaching to give him the muscle memory to enable him to hold his own in a social game of doubles, but there was no way I should be losing to him. We had played once before. I had been five games up when he resigned. Admittedly he’d just had a nasty bout of Covid-19, which was the reason he gave for walking off in the middle of the sixth game.’ Sorry, old chap, but I’m a bit out of sorts today,’ he had said. ‘Let’s play again when I’m back to tip-top condition.’ So this is his peak condition I thought as he bumbled back on court. Bumble, that’s what I’m going to call him.
‘You’re on the wrong side.’ Bumble said as he lined up to serve to the backhand side.
‘No, we’ve only played two points. It’s thirty-love.’
‘I’m sorry, but we’ve played two points. I overhit my return both times.’
‘Yes, and before that I served an ace.’ This was a complete fabrication. He hadn’t come close to acing me once in the whole match. He must know that it was a lie. He couldn’t possibly be such a fantasist as to believe such an absurdity.
‘I sorry, but you’re mistaken. We’ve only played two points; you definitely didn’t ace me.’ I walked towards the net in an attempt to resolve the little misunderstanding, but Bumble stood his ground on the baseline and made ready to serve. ‘Did you hear what I said?’ I raised my voice in irritation.
‘Yes, I heard you perfectly well old chap, but you’re wrong. It’s forty-love. Now are you going to receive my serve or am I going to ace you again?’ I could see the smirk on his face, underneath his unruly mop of blonde hair. He didn’t care. It was all a game to him. It was as legitimate to him to gain a point by making it up as it was to hit a winning shot. ‘C’mon old chap, just get on and play the game.’ What could I do? The etiquette of the amateur game is that the server keeps the score. When a disagreement arises, the server has the last word. Such etiquette assumes honesty and good sportsmanship. Never in my thirty years of playing the game had I been confronted with an opponent who had such scant regard for the notion of fair play. I thought about walking off, as he had done previously, but I was better than that. What was it Michelle Obama said? When they go low, we go high. I got into position to receive his serve, determined to return it with power and accuracy. I resolved to beat him fair and square in our battle of good versus evil.
I have to give Bumble credit for his next move. Knowing that he’d got under my skin, he chose to play a dolly-drop of an underarm serve. He literally went low. Very low. I was standing so far behind the backline, pumped up with adrenalin, that there was no way I could possibly reach the ball before its second bounce. It rolled slowly under my desperate lunge. I had been aced in the most humiliating way.
‘Hard luck old chap, you nearly got that.’ I should have stopped then. Foolishly, I continued. It was hardwired in me to complete a match: I wasn’t a quitter. But I was in no fit state to play. Tennis is a head game, which means you need complete focus on the point in play. As soon as that concentration goes, you’re lost. I was shaking with rage. There was no way I could clear my mind of the injustice of what had just happened.
The bigger problem, though, was that I was unable to adjust to the new game that we were playing. It wasn’t tennis as I knew it, but a contest against an opponent who had a complete disregard for the rules of the game and seemingly felt at liberty to lie whenever it suited him. I was in such a state that he would have won anyway, but that didn’t stop him continuing to fault perfectly good shots, to award himself bogus points and to refuse to accept that he had double-hit the ball when it was indisputable that he had done so. He bounced up to the net at the end of the match and put out his racquet to touch the top of mine as is the new way of sporting handshake in this socially distanced world. I wished the guidelines mandated more than six feet, which was way to too close to this odious man for my liking. Not, I supposed that he would pay any attention to the guidelines.
‘Well played, old chap. You faded a bit at the end, but you stayed with me for most of the first set. We should play again.’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Oh, c’mon old chap, don’t give up that easily. I agree that you might not ever beat me, but you’ll improve your game by playing people who are better than you.’
That really got to me. ‘Ok,’ I said curtly, ‘I’ll play again, but only with an umpire.’
‘Splendid idea, old chap.’
Ours was a typical local tennis club. In recent years there had been an influx of younger members, no doubt inspired by Andy Murray, that had let to the emergence of some low-level tension among the traditional old guard. The most heated argument concerned the dress code. The newer members objected to having to wear whites on the courts and a tie in the restaurant. A fragile truce had been reached which involved different codes on different days, a dress-down Friday sort of arrangement. Needless to say, this was still wholly unacceptable to some of the more traditional members who were affronted that they should be obliged to quaff their gin and tonics in the presence of some open-necked chappies three evenings a week. The other evolution was an increased collaboration with other clubs in the county. Historically, our club had been a closed affair with no interest in other clubs, but some of the new members had signed us up to the regional league and were pressing for more of reciprocity with other clubs. The idea that we should open our doors to members of clubs from other villages was a step too far, and the motion was voted down.
The most prominent member of the old Guard was Bar Room Bore, a florid man who never held back from sharing his trenchant views. Despite never seen anywhere near a tennis court, he appointed himself as leader of the resistance against any modernisation. He had lost the battle against allowing women in the bar a few years back and was determined to prevent any further degradation, as he saw it, towards preserving the spirit and atmosphere of the 1950s in the club. Bar Room Bore’s masterstroke in the burgeoning culture war was to invite Bumble into our club.
I was psyched for the rematch. Foolishly, I assumed that it would be incumbent on me to find the umpire as I had suggested it and as I was the long-standing member of the club. I had arranged for one of the other members to do the job and so was surprised when I arrived to find Bumble already at the court with a lady I didn’t recognise. ‘Well hello old chap, let me introduce you to my friend who has agreed to umpire our match today.’
Bumble’s friend’s pinstripe jacket and high heels were more suited for adjudication in the law courts rather than on the umpire’s chair at a village tennis match. I shook her hand and said, ‘hello. I’m afraid we won’t be needing you as one of the other club members has agreed to do it.’
Bumble intervened. ‘I’ve stood him down old chap. Besides my good friend here know’s what she’s doing; she used to be in the second six at her school.’
‘Do you still play?’ I asked her.
‘To be honest, no, I don’t, but it’s like riding a bicycle isn’t it. Once you’ve learnt, you never forget.’
I’d been stitched up. I was pleased to win the opening point and looked over to our umpire, waiting for her to give the score. Nothing. Noticing me looking at her, she said ‘What?’
‘Aren’t you’re going to say the score?’
‘Why? Don’t you know it?’
‘That’s what umpires do. That’s why you’re here.’
‘What? I’m supposed to say the score after every point?’
She turned to Bumble. ‘You didn’t say anything about that.’
Bumble shouted across the court, ‘I say old chap, I don’t think she needs to keep the score. This is only a friendly game between mates; it’s hardly Wimbledon.’
‘Yes, we do need her to score. That’s what umpires do; it avoids any misunderstanding. If she can’t do it, I’ll go and get the club member who had agreed to umpire this match.’
‘There’s no need for that.’ Bumble turned to his friend and said, ‘would you mind terribly doing the score as well? Pretty please.’ His simpering was appalling, but astonishingly it worked. She relented.
I said, ‘so, what’s the score then?’
She shrugged and replied uncertainly, ‘One – zero to you?’
‘Do you know how to score in tennis?’
‘I thought you said you’d played tennis.’
‘The tennis I played didn’t look like this. We played on a table with a little net and small white balls.’
‘Yes, that’s it.’
‘For fuck’s sake’, I exploded.
‘There’s no need for language like that. I’m only here to help out.’
‘Well, you’re no fucking help if you don’t know the rules of the game.’
Bumble intervened, ‘Steady on old chap, it’s only a game. We can keep the score, and my friend can adjudicate on any close calls. That’s all we need isn’t? Splendid.’ I don’t know why I went along with this. I still thought I could beat him and was desperate for revenge, but I’d forgotten that we weren’t playing tennis as I knew it. Our umpire spent the whole game staring at her phone. Whenever Bumble asked her to adjudicate on a point that she hadn’t seen, she ruled in his favour. Having all the key points erroneously called against me together with my growing frustration at the injustice of it all, meant I didn’t stand a chance. At the end of the match, for the first time in my life, I stormed off the court without acknowledging my opponent.
Despite my intense dislike of the man, I have to concede that Bumble is an effective campaigner. He and Bar Room Bore made a ruthless team and had more or less won the war before any of us knew it had begun. They started their campaign to make our club great again, as they put it, by causing mischief by planting false rumours about some of the newer young members that played into the latent prejudices of the old guard and calcified divisions within the club. Bar Room Bore finally had a theme for his rants; he alternated between waxing lyrical about the past and denigrating other local clubs. He demonised anyone from a neighbouring village, which was pretty ironic given his wife originated from one of them. Someone speculated that his antipathy to our neighbours was simply a reflection of his marital difficulties; the division he was seeking to seed between the other villagers and us was nothing more than an escalation of his domestic tiff. It was difficult to understand why else he would want to present our neighbours and friends as our enemy.
It dawned on me that we were in trouble when I chanced upon one of the more reasonable members of the old guard one afternoon. ‘Isn’t it great that we’re reclaiming our club,’ he said excitedly.
‘Reclaiming it? From whom?’
‘They’ve decided to ban competition against the other clubs and with the money saved from that we’re going to erect a fence to keep unwanted guests out.’
‘But it doesn’t cost anything to compete with other clubs. And what do mean a fence to keep people out? We’ve got a perfectly good hedge and who do we want to keep out. We’ve always welcomed guests.’
‘The world’s changed, my friend. There are a lot more people who aren’t like us.’
‘You mean the other villagers? They’re exactly like us and anyway its good to have all sorts in the club. Think how dull it would be if everyone were just like you and me.’ My previously reasonable friend didn’t like that joke at all. Shortly afterwards, I was reprimanded by the committee for making offensive and disparaging remarks about a fellow member.
Bumble didn’t stop at the fence, he put barbed wire along the top and installed security cameras which excited Bar Room Bore enormously because it all reminded him of the blitz. Seeing him as some latter-day Churchillian figure who was going to restore their beloved club to the exceptional place of their befuddled memories, the old guard soon voted Bumble on to the committee. Shortly afterwards the committee voted to ban non-wooden racquets. There was a lot of excitement among those members who had been blown away by some graphite racquet welding youth whose powerful serves were too much for their ageing limbs and inferior wooden racquets. They imagined that they would finally be able to safely return to the court in what would be the country’s only wooden racquet club. That was the day I, along with many others, cancelled our membership and almost overnight the club became little more than an old persons’ home.
As I was heading out for the last time, I noticed a small bespectacled, slightly balding man in animated discussion with Bumble in the far corner of the clubroom, the pair of them looking like Laurel and Hardy. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked my friend.
‘That’s his special advisor.”
‘Bumble has an advisor!’ I was shocked.
‘Yes, he’s the mastermind behind all this.’
‘Mastermind? What’s he hoping to achieve?’
‘I’ve no idea. Someone told me he just likes causing trouble and tearing things down to see what happens.’
‘And what about Bumble, what does he want?’
‘I dunno, I suppose he wants to feel important.’
‘What even if it means destroying the club?’
‘He doesn’t see it like that. He’s got people here telling him he’s their saviour. That’s what he wants. Acclaim.’
A few months after I had left, the club – financially crippled by the loss of income from the departed younger members and discovering there wasn’t much of a market for a club that only allowed wooden racquets – sold off half of its land to a developer. The half they sold contained most of the courts. The old guard were delighted because their bar was saved. Bumble then made his most audacious move, no doubt one orchestrated by his puppet master, which I’m told, he launched with great fanfare as the Get Real campaign. If Bumble had any talent, it was for coming up with political slogans. The Get Real campaign pronounced that real tennis was the only authentic form of the game and superior to lawn tennis. It said that lawn tennis had become commercialised and inferred that the Lawn Tennis Association were part of some international cabal intent on wrecking local traditions. The old guard were ecstatic; the turning clock wasn’t stopping at the 1950s, it was going all the way back to medieval times when Britain indeed was an island nation. None of the members had ever played real tennis, nor given their condition were they ever likely to, but Bumble had convinced them that this was the real deal, the crowning glory of their club’s return to greatness. The money from the developers financed the bulldozing of the remaining two tennis courts and the construction of a real tennis court.
I hadn’t set foot in the club for nearly a year, but one day my curiosity got the better of me. I decided to pay a visit. The iron bar gate was locked, and no-one answered the intercom. I was just about to give up when Bumble appeared. ‘What ho, old chap. I haven’t seen you for a while.’
‘No, I left the club.’
‘Did you hear what I said? I left. I’m no longer a member.’
‘Oh, well, we are much more exclusive nowadays. Got rid of all the riff-raff.’ I wasn’t sure if Bumble was calling me riff-raff or whether he was just spouting a new party line without thought. ‘Hey, old chap, we should have a game of real tennis.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, ‘I’m no longer welcome here and anyway I don’t know the rules of real tennis.’
‘That’s not a problem, nor do I. Who cares for rules?’
‘I have to ask,’ I said, ‘why have you done all this?’
‘Done all what, old chap?’
‘Taken over and then destroyed our club.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous my good friend; I’ve restored it to its former glory. I got rid of all the doomsters and gloomsters and have made it great again.’ He really believed it, as much as someone like him could ever believe anything. In little over a year, he had turned a vibrant and welcoming tennis club into a museum for an archaic sport from a bygone age attached to a pensioners’ social club who liked to be closeted away from anyone not like them.
As I watched Bumble disappear through the security gate, I wondered how could we possibly have let this happen?