If someone offers me free stuff, I always take it. Sometimes, this clashes with my principles (I really should have refused that all-expenses-paid trip to Alaska to watch Sarah Palin execute East Coast liberals with a hand-sharpened moose antler) and, thus conflicted, I found myself part of the crowd taking in a match at the Stella Artois Championships; a tournament that seemed to think of itself as Wimbledon without the commoners. Still, free tickets. What are you going to do?
Leave, it turns out - watching Some Unknown beat That Other Guy just didn’t appeal. More importantly, this being June 12th, 1992, my freebie love meant I was missing a crucial Euro ’92 encounter, Scotland vs. Holland. While I’m neither Scots nor Dutch, I have ancestry of both kinds (one less in the Scottish camp since the passing of Racist Uncle Des), and it was with a heart angry at the cheapness in my soul that I escaped the heat, to the artificial cool of an adjacent building. Wandering, I came across an open door. The sign “Players Only” deterred; the fact that it was hand-written on a blu-tacked sheet of A4 seemed to say “Only Joking”. I ducked in. And there it was. The Game.
A seat at the back beckoned. I sat, hunched, fearing attention, watching motionless until I felt I was part of the background. There were more people in the room than I’d first realized, and, well, I knew some of them – their faces, at least. A pre-invincibility Sampras. There, all enthusiasm, the raw Ivanisevic. To the left sat that redhead South African, whatshisname; good player, just never good enough to win anything of actual significance. The ginger Tim Henman, if you will. We watched.
Scotland never looked in trouble against the Dutch, who, while still a decent side, didn’t even bother testing a lazy stereotype, forcing the Scottish goalkeeper to make but one save. Then, suddenly, 75 minutes in, Gullit, Rijkaard, Bergkamp, one-nil. I groaned. Loudly. Bugger. It’s over, I thought. Only Goran turned. The jig is up. He looked around, back at me, grinned a sly grin, nodded a conspiratorial nod, and turned back to the game. We watched Scotland lose.
The ginger Tim Henman won at Queen’s that year. I didn’t care. But nine years later, as Goran Ivanisevic served for the Wimbledon title, he cried tears of joy - and I did, too.