Mabel’s sisters, Jean and Alice, at Rattray tennis courts, 1940
On Sunday before last, Ian and I timed our visit so that we could watch the start of the Wimbledon final before leaving the house. Andy Murray had won the first two games so we set off for the care home in a positive state of mind. Mum was there in the corridor to greet me with a wave. However, a glance over at the TV in the lounge told me that Roger Federer had just won three games in a row. “It’s the men’s final at Wimbledon this afternoon,” I said to Mabel, once an avid tennis watcher. But she didn’t respond.
We drove down to Rattray and parked alongside the tennis club. The pair of shabby pink blaize courts are very close to Mabel’s childhood home and she spent much of her summers here when a teenager. There is an entry in her 1941 diary mentioning that the 16-year-old Mabel played a game with Ian McLaren, the same individual that shares car rides with her 71 years later! Dad commented that the scene was remarkably similar to that of the 1940s, except that that afternoon there was no-one playing tennis, and indeed there rarely is nowadays. The wooden pavilion was replaced with the present brick building back in the 1950s. The courts still back onto builders’ yards, where tennis balls that make it over tall walls and wire netting end up, as they always have done. It was a scene that whispered: “yesteryear”.
I asked Mum which of the courts she used to prefer. I asked her which end of the courts she used to like. She didn’t respond to my questions until I mentioned that Alice and Jean, her older sisters, used to play here as well. Then Mabel’s answer was just the one word, “yes”. But that was enough. It had to be, Mabel couldn’t say more. A couple of weeks before, she’d said to me: ‘Don’t talk too much. Because I can’t say much back.’ Which had been her longest utterance for some time and helped clarify the situation, that, basically, she wants leaving in peace.
By the time that we had drunk our tea and eaten our scones and driven around a bit, Ian and I had become curious as to what was happening at Wimbledon. So we took Mum back to the home and I got her settled in the lounge and told her I’d see her again on the Tuesday. I’m not sure I did this in as wholehearted a way as usual. At least that’s what crossed my mind as I reported to Ian that it was one set all, the rain was falling in SW19, and so the roof was being put over the Centre Court.
Today, I’ve looked out Mabel’s diary for 1977, which is the last time there was a British winner of either of the Wimbledon singles titles. That was 35 years ago, when Mabel was 52, and if not playing tennis any more then still showing a lively interest in it:
Monday, June 27, 1977: ‘It’s going to be another week of tennis watching, some good matches to come.’
Tuesday: ‘Nastase beaten by Borg and has gone off home, hurray!’
Wednesday: ‘AT LAST. VIRGINIA WADE got through to the final of the singles, she played marvelous tennis to beat the no. 1 seed Evert.’
Thursday: ‘The men’s quarter finals were terrific.’
Friday: ‘At last, after 16 years of trying, Virginia Wade won the singles.’
Saturday, July 2, 1977: ‘Summer has come at last, too good to miss so I didn’t watch all the gents’ final on TV but what I did see was terrific stuff. Borg beat Connors in five sets.’
I go through the diaries, and most years Mabel has something to say about Wimbledon. In 2005 she mentions both the men’s final and the women’s. But the summer of 2006 is left blank, until in September a much shakier hand writes of her sister: ‘Jean died in Muirton nursing home, very peaceful, no pain, just slept away.’
Gentle Jean of the placid temperament and sunny demeanour was pretty good at tennis, in her day. And I know that in one of Mabel’s diaries from the Forties, she comments that she has just won her match in a local tournament but that she’s got to play Jean in the next round, so that that was that. Ah well, good tennis players, just like regular diarists, they come and they go.
How is Virginia Wade these days? It may be 35 years since ‘Miss Wade’, now 67, thrilled Mabel by winning the ladies’ singles title, but she’s still active and thriving, I discover. Google shows me a picture of her arriving for the Wimbledon Winners ball 2012 in an evening dress, looking tanned and healthy. She writes about tennis for various papers and on Tuesday following the final had a piece in the Daily Mail analyzing Andy Murray’s chances of success in grand slams to come.
This prompts me to revisit Murray’s runners-up speech on Youtube. “And last of all to you guys,” Murray says to the crowd and chokes up. Perhaps he has an inkling of the bright and bubbly diary entries that will have been made by many of those who have been following the tennis this summer! And just perhaps he’s had a glimpse into the future, of how today’s crowd will be in 35 years’ time, with bodies breaking down and minds disintegrating. There will be no exceptions, despite Virginia Wade’s fine showing this time around.
Oh dear, what a bleak end to this year’s – or indeed any year’s – Wimbledon. But let it stand.
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