Innocents abroad probably thought that a simple tennis tournament was all that started in London last week. In fact, what also was occurring in glorious tandem to Wimbledon was something chock-full of far more fun and breathtaking excitement—another heated round of the ongoing circulation war within one of merry and randy olde England's cherished institutions, the tabloid press.
If you really have to faint, do it in private Diana—Charles Taunt as she collapses on Starvation diet. This was an actual headline last week in The Sun, London's most popular daily newspaper (circulation: four million), which purported to represent something that actually happened between the Prince and the Princess of Wales, as described in the soon-to-be best-seller Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton.
Because the serialization of Morton's book began two weekends before the championships, there was real fear that the Royals, not to mention the rumps (ENGELBERT RUMPERDINCK "PLEASE RELEASE ME" FROM MY UNDERPANTS was a headline from News of the World, a weekly tab with a circulation of five million, showing the legendary if awesomely over-the-hill singer Humperdinck, 56, sunbathing on a boat clad in something that appeared to be a thong), would push all news of Wimbledon into the small print on the inside pages of the tabloids amid the phone-sex lines and adverts for "auto setters," whatever they are, "Looks like a long fortnight for the Beastie Boys," said Hugh Jamieson of the Daily Mirror, the second-best-selling London tab (circulation: three million), referring to the proud coterie of upstanding journalists who are wont to kick butt and take names but not prisoners in the cause of truth (well, sort of), justice and the Anglican Way.
June 22, the opening day at the big W, seemed a dark one indeed for hungry monitors of tennis trivia when The Sun also went Royal on its front page: CHARLES: I'M SURE DIANA IS BEHIND THE BOOK. However, lest Wimbledon fans be forced into the streets cold turkey, The Sun greeted them on page 3 with pulsating news about two of their favorite stars. GABBY'S SERVE AND TROLLEY headlined a picture demonstrating how Gabriela Sabatini pushes her own cart at the grocery and a caption speculating about what she buys there. And WIMBLEDIN: YOU MUST CUT OUT YOUR GRUNT STUNT, MONICUGH IS TOLD detailed Monica Seles's "ear-splitting groans that register as loud as a diesel train" and also described her obnoxious grunting as "disgusting."
July 5, 1992
Three separate tabloid investigators brought their "gruntometers" to Seles's first-round match, against Jenny Byrne. Alas, Byrne was unable to push Seles through any noise-inducing long rallies, so John Jackson, a scribe from the Daily Minor, was soon ringing his office from courtside on a cellular phone. "Jackson here," he reported. "I am chagrined to say we have a gruntless Monica."
Nevertheless, two days later—the intrepid tabloiders realized that Seles's grunting would return as her matches got tougher—readers of The Sun opened up their fish wrapping to find that they could JOIN GREAT SUN TENNIS GRUNTATHON by phoning a special Groanline, whereupon they could hear Seles's noise and "imitate [her] Eeern-uuurgh as loudly as you can," following which "the best efforts on a decibel-meter...will win a smashing tennis racquet and 10 balls."
On June 25 the paper revealed to a gasping world that STEFFI'S BARKING! SHE PHONES HER POOCHES and brought to light the shocking discovery that "tennis ace Steffi Graf has a cure for feeling wuff...she calls her four dogs in Germany and natters to them over the phone. The Wimbledon champ misses her mutts so much, she rings the yelpline every day."
Quite naturally, the very next day the Daily Mirror, not to be scooped, took its place on the cutting edge of the news by reporting that Graf had said, "I need to talk to my dogs every night and morning," which (tongue in cheek) the champion had indeed said. And a Mirror headline screamed, simply enough, PAW GIRL!
In olden times—that is to say before banners like MARTINA THE HEARTBREAKER...HER TRAIL OF TEARS and I'LL BE A HOUSE HUSBAND LIKE LENNON, SAYS MAC—none of this would have mattered. Wimbledon used to mean not a twit to the "gutter press," which is how the tabloids are sometimes referred to, as opposed to "broadsheets," "qualities" or "posh papers" like The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer. Then as the flower children of the 1960s turned into world-class tennis players, upsetting officialdom along with the berry carts, the public responded, and, with that, Fleet Street ran with it.
The player who turned the tabs onto tennis was named, fittingly, Nasty. "I remember getting a call from the office one day in 1969," says the Daily Mirror's Nigel Clarke, the yeoman beast of the Beasties. "They told me to go to the Davis Cup match at Wimbledon. Our boys were playing against Romania, and some maniac clown was tearing the place apart."
That would be Ilie Nastase, soon to be renowned for breaking the rules on and off the court. "The bloke actually stuck his tongue out and called an official drunk," recalls Clarke. "Then came Connors giving the finger and rubbing his crotch; Borg, the elegant mystery prince; McEnroe, the defamer brat; Goolagong, from the Outback; Chrissie, sweet priss; Martina, feared lesbian monster. The British public connected to all this. What stories! What personalities! Wimbledon was apoplectic! We all loved it!"
As Wimbledon—not tennis, but Wimbledon—increased in popularity across the country, the tabs responded by transferring hard-edged, aggressive reporters from team sports like soccer to the All England Club. The Beasties included the likes of Clarke, Jamieson ("I don't do forehands and backhands, mate"), Bryan Cooney of the Daily Star, and The Sun's Steven Howard, a grandson of actor Leslie Howard and a gonzo-style journalist who, according to his colleagues, has become "flat-out dangerous." It was Howard who stomped firmly into Beasties lore last year when he speculated that Seles was absent from Wimbledon because she was pregnant, i.e., is MONICA A WIMBLEMUM?
The Beasties, you must understand, are more select than and separate from the Rotters (short for rottweilers, those German-bred canines infamous for their aggressiveness and tenacity). The Rotters are not sports reporters at all but men, like the gruntometer-bearing Jackson, and women from the news divisions of the Fleet Street papers sent out to Wimbledon to cover the subliminal angles of the tournament, which might turn out to be anything from the price of strawberries to who in the locker room might be bonking whom behind whose back. (Bonking is British slang for sexual intercourse, and its linkage in the tabloids to Boris Becker—as in Bonking Boris Becker—has proliferated to the extent that the word now sits with pride in the Oxford Dictionary of New Words.)
Nonetheless bonking has been scarcely chronicled since Becker started losing the tournament. Its most notable recurrence came last year, when The Sun reported that a Wimbledon umpire left his wife to run away with a woman line judge, resulting in the headline NEW BALLS, PLEASE.
At 57, Jackson is the doyen of the Rotters, a man known for his frank questioning. At last year's Wimbledon he asked the new champion, Michael Stich, "Just what do you say when someone asks you, 'Who the hell is Michael Stich?' " Last week Jackson asked Andre Agassi to clear up the confusion over why he has taken to wearing a cap. "There is a suggestion you're losing your hair," Jackson said.
"Oh, really?" Agassi wittily rejoined and then mumbled something about growing his sides out and needing his bandana and cap to do that.
"Such nonsense," Jackson said later. "I'm dubbing this silly wanker 'the Elton John of Wimbledon.' "
Clarke's legend rests on a couple of stories that he finagled with great glee and now recounts in the same spirit. He once wrote that Andrei Chesnokov of Russia learned to play tennis by hitting balls against the Kremlin wall. This entirely contrived story was repeated so often that it turned up in Chesnokov's official bio in a British news-agency guide. During the 1988 Olympics, following swimmer Anthony Nesty's upset victory in the 100-meter butterfly, Clarke figured Nesty, who was from Suriname, must have learned to swim while escaping from the crocodiles in the swamps of his native land. So he wrote his whole story around this amazing feat. Back in London the Daily Mirror headlined Clarke's report CROC OF GOLD. Alas, the story was a whole other kind of crock. It turns out that Nesty spent his formative years in Florida. "All's the pity!" Clarke said last week, fairly keeling over with laughter. "And they aren't crocs in Suriname, but gators."
Mike Dickson, 28, the rising star of the Daily Mail, found himself sitting in a car in a rainstorm outside Seles's Florida home last summer, seeking the answer to the mystery of why the top-ranked Seles had skipped Wimbledon. "Tabloid journalism is the result of a peculiar Anglo-Saxon thing," says Dickson, "the desire to make sense of people, to find the meaning of life, to explain the angst. But as I sat there waiting for Monica, I felt like a complete ass."
And so down through the years at Wimbledon, the high and mighty have been forced to walk the plank while doubtless experiencing feelings similar to those of Dickson.
Navratilova: HOW MARTINA SMASHED THE SEX BARRIER (1983); MARTINA: I WANT A BABY ('85); JUDY [Nelson, Navratilova's former companion] JUST WANTED TO WATCH TV AND REST HER VARICOSE VEINS ('91).
McEnroe: PITS OF THE WORLD; THE INCREDIBLE SULK; THE MERCHANT OF MENACE; KING SNEER (all 1981); I JUST WANT TO BE LOVED SAYS SUPERBRAT ('84); I NEED HELP TO CURE MY CENTRE COURT INSANITY ('90).
Becker: BORIS: LOVE WILL MAKE ME NUMBER ONE (1987); IT'S DAME, SET AND MATCH FOR BORIS ('89); I WANT LOVE NOT SEX ('90).
Obviously there is a thread running somewhere through here, and it doesn't have a PG-13 rating. Moreover, last week at Wimbledon, the only shock bigger than No. 1-seeded Jim Courier's being upset in the third round by 193rd-ranked Andrei Olhovskiy of Russia—Olhovskiy learned to play tennis hitting balls through the Kremlin wall, you may not know—was the absence from the tabloids of Becker's newest flame, model Barbara Feltus-Ferbus, or Strapsy Babsy, as the tabloids in Deutschland call her.
In the place of Boris-Babsy bulletins, however, there were: 1) TENNIS ACE MICHAEL IN LOVE STICH-UP, explaining how Stich "currently has two beauties in his life. And he has had flings with two others since finding fame as last year's winner." 2) TENNIS AND SEX DO MIX, a touching report, direct from London's Hard Rock Cafe, about how Courier had gotten back together with "gorgeous heiress" Morgane Fruhwirth, from whom he had split after a patch of poor form and after declaring "sex gets in the way of winning." As the top seed jumped behind the drum kit with the band Nice and Sticky, Fruhwirth, 20, said, "Yes, we're together again. We had a misunderstanding but we're very happy now." And 3) POP STAR WIFE IS SECRET GROUPIE, the epic tale of a rock 'n' roll star's wife leading a double life—as a tennis Annie. "The stunning 38-year-old brunette claims to have slept with a host of top players behind her husband's back," reported James Weatherup in News of the World. "And she boasts that one of her conquests, currently seeded at Wimbledon, was only 17 when she bedded him."
Well, that leaves out Olhovskiy.
Other players have felt the sting of being similarly neglected. "One of my greatest regrets was never to have been linked with anybody in the tabs," says Pam Shriver. "Once I saw George Hamilton at a restaurant and offered him tickets to Wimbledon. He couldn't make it, but if he'd have sat with me, I would have been all over him to get some pub. My fantasy headline would be six A.M.: CHARLES BIDS PAM GOODBYE AT PALACE."
Chris Evert has had no such problems. During the eight years she was married to John Lloyd, an Englishman, reporters and photographers trailed Evert everywhere during Wimbledon. "When John and I had our troubles, it was hurtful when they'd write about all the men I'd been with," says Evert. "Once, a headline screamed CHRISSIE LOVE TRIANGLE. The triangle was John, me and my career."
The seminal moment for the tabs at Wimbledon occurred in 1981. During a press conference with McEnroe that was going along swimmingly, with Beasties and Rotters screaming questions about Mac's off-court activities, the man from Reuters spoiled everything by asking him about something innocuous, such as tennis. "Greeaaaat——question," said James Whitaker, a king Rotter.
As shouting suddenly broke out between the serious press and the gossip hounds, McEnroe beat a quick retreat. But he probably regrets to this day that he did not return, because soon Clarke (wouldn't you know?) and Charlie Steiner of RKO Radio, a non-Beastie, were grappling on the floor trying to strangle each other. Then a mass of journalists joined the fray, bouncing off desks and walls, screaming threats and debating who belonged in the press room and what questions they should ask.
"High noon in Dodge City," remembers Jamieson, who helped man the battlements, "and one of the great moments in journalism, wouldn't you say?"
Ever since then, the beleaguered officials at the All England Club have begun most press conferences with, "Tennis questions only." Not that the Beasties or Rotters take much notice, of course. Last Friday, because no Royals or sex fiends or any combination thereof had turned up, the tabloids were reduced to asking Seles, "About your addiction to butter...is your bottom too big?" and to hearing Seles answer, "You should vote on it.... Honestly, these subjects [come from] people who have nothing to do all day."
Hold it just a minute, sister. You can win all the Grand Slam tournaments you want, but if it weren't for my comrades in the vigilant press, the world would little note what Richard Krajicek had to say. Who? Yeah, Richard Krajicek, the 20-year-old Dutchman with the 129-mph serve, who, after losing in the third round, vented his feelings about the women players, who he said didn't deserve equal prize money because "80 percent of the women players are fat pigs, and should not be allowed on the show courts." The headlines fairly sang the next day: WHAT A PORKER, MALE CHAUVINIST PIG and HE'S A REAL OINK, SAYS MARTINA.
Another tabloid savior, at last! A player from a Rotter(dam) of a city had turned men and women against each other and the tournament inside out. The Beasties were in heaven as Wimbledon once again went spinning toward tabloid hell.
Lacking news of Royals or sex fiends, the tabloids were asking Seles, "Is your bottom too big?"