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When his genius was hurt, McEnroe was poetry


DRESS REHEARSAL: Matt Harvey reads out his verse amid the green stands of Wimbledon

Matt Harvey is a poet, performer and "enemy of all that's difficult and upsetting" based in the UK. He is also the creator of the superhero Empath Man (on BBC Radio 4). The Wimbledon Championships poet spoke to TOI-Crest, about his new role. Excerpts. . .

Don't you feel you might get claustrophobic, conducting yourself in the conservative atmosphere of Wimbledon?

It's a risk I am willing to take! Actually claustrophobia is the least of my worries. As the tournament approaches, I alternate between self-congratulatory glee that I'm being paid to attend the best tennis tournament in the world (not just my opinion!) and acute anxiety that people will read my verse and say, 'What the hell is this?!'

Constraints are very interesting. It's a clichê, but true, to point out that constraints and limitations can be paradoxically liberating. Poetic forms are constraints - the iambic pentameter, the sonnet. I have always had a fondness and fascination for the sonnet form. The size of the court is a constraint for the players!

The conservative atmosphere you speak of, what have been called the 'po-faced protocols' of Wimbledon, are fascinating in themselves, to write about and within. Just as the players' abiding by the 'predominantly white' dress code stipulated by these protocols needn't cramp their playing style, so my desire to respect my hosts' sensitivity needn't stifle my creativity, it might equally enhance it. So, I'd say my carte is predominantly blanche.

Which player are you itching to compose verses about?

My agreement with Wimbledon is to focus more on their traditions and history and the quirks and curiosities of the Championships rather than the players; having said that, they're not necessarily out of bounds. Certainly, if there were a homegrown victor, it would be incumbent on me to celebrate this. I would love to compose a panegyric to Andy Murray in the not inconceivable event that he finds himself crowned men's singles champion. No pressure, Andy.

Which former player would you have liked to write about?

There are several, including Billie Jean King, Martina, Fred Perry, but if I pick just one, it has to be John McEnroe. For me he was the most charismatic player of his generation, coming to prominence when I was in my early teens, playing schools and park tennis. He shocked and delighted us with his temper and his touch, his awesome intensity. Of course, he matured to become a great champion, Davis Cup hero, father and, latterly, a top TV commentator - but it is the early John McEnroe who continues to influence my own on-court behaviour. And to a lesser extent my home life.

How are you intending to deal with a subject like Serena without infuriating her?

Let's be clear it's you saying these things, not me. Actually, I'm not sure I agree that the one is more poetic than the other - though your question suggests a nice idea for a poem, a rewriting of a song from the Sound of Music: 'How do you treat a subject like Serena?' to the tune of 'How do you solve a problem like Maria?'

Hmmm... Perhaps I'll write an encomium to Venus and finish with the lines: 'I must confess/I'm keener/On Serena'.

Can you recollect some idiosyncrasies of players?

When Sharapova tucks imaginary wisps of hair behind her ears it's easy to find oneself unconsciously doing it with her. I enjoy Nadal's obsessively precise placing of his water bottles. I imagine Rafa fans around the world laying the table with heightened precision or, watching on TV, placing their beer beside them with great care and refusing to move it between points.

Then back to Mr McEnroe. His serve. The way the tip of his tongue poked from the corner of his mouth as he held the ball next to his racquet with that distinctive straight-armed stance. His eyes would flicker up towards his opponent with the determination and intent common to all servers but also with what seemed to me an element of hurt, an affronted bewilderment that anyone should try to thwart his genius. Very different from the frank pugnacity of Jimmy Connors.

What is the best metaphor for tennis?

The best metaphor for tennis is that of a duel. Though this doesn't work for doubles. Another metaphor that I like is of a conversation or an argument. Essentially a disagreement about whose ball it is and the best place to put it.

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