I knew them all once, knew them well,
The tennis players whose names tell
Of a golden time on splendid courts,
Knew their flashing display of shots,
Their style, their strength, their mercurial pace
Between the net and the baseline.
Yes, I knew them, the great and the good,
In the days before
Titanium racquets supplanted wood.—
And what you wore was white on white;
It was an almost holy sight
As if angels descending to the court
Had taken up this earthly sport
And striven awhile in the sun
At Roland-Garros and Wimbledon.
There was greatness in the game then.
In flapping white flannels the men
—Ah, the men—they rivalled the women,
In those days, for beauty and grace,
Adept at either drop-shot or ace,
As crowds poured in, a holiday jam,
Hurrying there by horse-drawn tram
To marvel at
The dapper stroke-makers,
The serve-and-volley merchants,
Ballboys scampering like urchins
As Hoad volleyed back to Rosewall
And Rosewall came to the net with a cross-court
Retrieved, unbelievably, by Hoad
From whose racquet the ball would explode
Down the line, scattering seabirds
And leaving spectators lost for words
When the mercurial Rosewall,
Incredibly, chased down the ball
And conjured out of nowhere a lob
That touched the sky for
A moment—I remember,
I remember Drobny and Mulloy,
Ashley Cooper, no more than a boy,
Segura, Trabert, Maria Bueno
And Althea Gibson, I still say no
Player has risen to equal them.
That passing shot was a gem,
That lob to die for.
Who, now, in the same breath
Can we begin to speak of?
The rot set in with Kafelnikov.
There are many Spaniards now,
Many Spaniards, even Swiss,
And Argentinian exhibitionists.
I cannot go there,
Cannot bear to hear again
The chock and thwock of racket on ball,
The graceful women, the gallant men
Have gone from the court, all
Are gone, now, under the grandstand,
Leaving only the last umpire’s call
Fading, falling God knows where
And vanishing into the air.
I dreamt last night of Spaniards,
I dreamt of a rose on a wall...
I dreamt of a ball skimming over the net,
Or, lobbed, about to land
In the shadow of the grandstand -
But just inside the line,
Perfectly placed to win the point
And take the set.
The rest I forget.