Laid out like a sward of picnic blanket amidst the surrounding scrubland, from a distance the Clangerland training ground seems to teem with little ant-like figures fetching and carrying the necessary victuals for their colony. Regimentally these drones march implacably onward as a fell wind claws and wrenches at the straggly hillside grass, pulling it hither and thither.
Move closer though, and the bulbous exoskeletons and wavy antennae of your imaginings are replaced by red faces and spindly frames – their muscles twanging with tensility while they engage in ritual callisthenics. Reality intercedes. This is the warm-down.
At a whistle from their insect overlord, the workers discard tools and fitfully disperse. Apart from one. A solitary beast, more like a lone wolf than an ant, he continues to hunt balls even as the gloaming creeps around us. An hour later, and he is finally ready for an interview. Such are the vicissitudes of perfectionism.
In many ways he is an ordinary young man. At first, affected by a penury of banal expressions, he seems embarrassed and uneasy, more like a rabbit than a wolf or an ant. But when I ask him about the upcoming game, his eyes take on a predatory gleam. Like an owl, or maybe an eagle.
“Looking forward to it. Big occasion. Fellas have been talking this one up all year.”
“I’d be lying if I said no.”
Would you be lying if you said yes?
“No.” he says.
This intrigues me. Is he lying about his nerves, or lying about his lying if he said no? The word ‘enigmatic’ is jotted and underlined in my notebook.
On his craft and his critics, he is more effusive: “From the stand, it looks easy. ‘You just catch it and throw it’ they say. Like they could do it, if they tried. But how many of them do you see doing it in a big match?” he snorts derisively. “They may be heroes in their back gardens, but they all freeze on the big stage.” He fixes me with an MRI-scan stare. I get an uncomfortable urge to gulp. His normal mode of speech combines the terse lucidity of a Hemingway with the insight of a Scott Fitzgerald. Some existential anti-heroism is mixed in there as well. If he had not been blessed with so many luminous talents, he would have made a very fine advertising copywriter.
I ask him about his new contract: “It’s about respect. Different sports I know, but at Wimbledon - they’re on savage money. Plus the perks – the strawberries and cream. I’ve only four years left at the top. 55 a week they offered me! After we had agreed 60! I was trembling with anger when I heard that. It showed a lack of respect, which I can’t have. I need to be able to look clearly at myself in the mirror.” he says, rubbing the grooved upper bridge of his nose thoughtfully.
His tongue-lashings are infamous. “I’ve a bit of a temper, yeah. What’re you goin to do about it?” This writer once likened him to a lizard catching and swallowing flies, before expelling them as repentant, shrunken turds. Needless to say, any likening was done well out of earshot.
He has a frightening memory. As longevous as an elephant’s, as vicious as a mobster’s. Here’s his view of the Heeground incident: “Two years before, he’d accused me of feigning to throw the ball to him. I’d waited long enough. I threw it hard. The ball was caught (I think). Have that, you c**t, I said. And don’t stand over me sneering about fake throws.” he says, with a snarl so menacing that my body hair winces.
His agent, who has been listening and must have sensed Ray’s agitation, comes over to interrupt us: “That’s enough now, Mr. Journo. Ray needs to get home for his tea.” she says. He rises from his plastic bucket seat and then gives me an apologetic shrug, replete with meaning. I infer: this is the game now – the agents, the glamour, the constant demands on your time – it’s all bulls**t, but necessary. The woman drags him away by the arm, clucking and pecking at him like a mother hen. Once more he seems like an unremarkable youth. But beneath the ginger curls, osseous brainpan and cerebrospinal fluid, there lurks the cerebral cortex of a champion ball-boy. On Saturday, no doubt he will prove it.