Craiglockhart was Wimbledon warm-up tournament of choice for the pros

John McEnroe holds the cup in 1989
John McEnroe holds the cup in 1989
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THE grass courts, perfectly manicured and bathed in sunshine, the crowds packed in to every vantage point to catch a glimpse of their heroes, the passion and fiery tempers exploding on court, and the outsider claiming an unlikely scalp.

As far as tennis competitions go, this was as good as it got, right down to the inevitable rain stopping play in the days before centre court roofs.

Argentinian tennis star Gabriela Sabatini practising before the tournament in 1987.

Argentinian tennis star Gabriela Sabatini practising before the tournament in 1987.

But this was not SW19, this was EH14 during Craiglockhart Tennis Centre’s temporary three-year romance with racquet legends such as Ivan Lendl, Gabriela Sabatini, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

Twenty-five years ago, the Capital’s immaculately preserved grass courts provided (summer weather permitting) opportunities for the stars to hone their skills in preparation for Wimbledon. With an obliging sponsor in Bank of Scotland, which was willing to put up a six-figure prize fund, it was little wonder household names were beating a path north.

Not all of them, however, had things entirely their own way in the face of a resolute home challenge.

Back in 1989, the final year of the tournament before major restructuring at the top end of the game created an official Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour and took the required funding into a new stratosphere, Suzi Mair, from Colinton, covered herself in glory by defeating Catarina Lindqvist, whose CV included wins over the likes of Steffi Graf and Pam Shriver.

Not only that, but after losing to Suzi, the Swede re-grouped and went on to reach Wimbledon’s semi-final a fortnight later before bowing out to the great Martina Navratilova.

If results like that caused the fans to roll up in their thousands, behind the scenes the organisers occasionally had to jump through hoops in dealing with the superstars.

Edinburgh’s Peter Nicolson was co-director for all three tournaments along with Karen Scott of Proserve Management Company, who had originally made the approach to hold a grass tournament in Edinburgh.

One of Peter’s memories is of trying to escort John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors out of the changing room on to the Craiglockhart centre court for the 1989 final – and little did he know that the patience of those in charge was only going to be stretched further in the ensuing two hours.

“That 1989 final was being shown live on television with a world-wide audience and presenter Dougie Donnelly had to fill in the gap while McEnroe and Connors played mind games over who was going to be ready to enter the court first.

“By that stage in his career Connors had mellowed quite a lot. Jimmy was relaxed and had great fun in Edinburgh, including visiting a casino with his friend and fellow competitor, Vitas Gerulaitis, now sadly deceased.

“McEnroe still felt he had another shot at winning Wimbledon so was still ultra competitive, even if he did have an embarrassing moment when he jumped in a courtesy car and waited and waited in bemused fashion for a lift because he was accustomed to being ferried about.

“Nobody had told any of the tournament’s volunteer drivers he wanted to leave and the delay reminded him he was in a different tennis world to the one he was used to.”

In fact, the “ultra competitive” McEnroe came within one outburst of being disqualified during his eventual 7-6, 7-6 win over Connors.

“I sat with referee Tom Kinloch as he reconciled himself to the fact he might have to walk on court and explain disqualification to McEnroe who had received a warning for racquet abuse and was then penalised one game for a verbal outburst at the umpire, John Frame.

“Another outburst and he would have been defaulted in front of a 4000 crowd, some of whom couldn’t get a seat and had bought tickets just to lie on the grass banks around the court.”

Commenting on McEnroe’s demeanour, Evening News tennis reporter Reg Prophit referred to “obscenities too vile to print” while the American defended himself afterwards, saying: “The umpire acted inappropriately initially then I acted inappropriately afterwards.”

What’s certain is that the sunshine conditions contrasted with the 1987 tournament which was marred by rain and saw Ivan Lendl, now Andy Murray’s coach, withdraw suffering “flu”.

McEnroe, however, left with a seemingly favourable impression of Scotland to the extent he advocated an extension of the British grass-court season by a week to make the Craiglockhart tournament a regular feature.

Sadly, the Craiglockhart grass courts were replaced by a clay surface some years ago, but hopes that the stars would come out to play in preparation for the French Open have been partially realised with Czech Petra Kvitova contesting the Scottish Championships some years ago. Her biggest success so far came when being crowned champion on Wimbledon grass last year.

“Looking back, Scottish tennis did have a heated debate with our colleagues at the Lawn Tennis Association to bring the star names to Edinburgh for a three-year spell because they were protective of traditional pre-Wimbledon tournaments in England,” said Nicolson.

“My year as Tennis Scotland president was largely taken up with fighting that battle but we felt entitled to a share of that pie.”

And for three special years, that is exactly what we had.

Serving up action since 1878

• The Scottish Lawn Tennis Championships were launched in 1878 and early winners included Patrick Bowes-Lyon, a member of the Queen Mother’s family.

• The 1898 tournament saw a semi-final appearance (where he lost to HL Doherty) by Harold Mahony who, two years earlier, had become the first and so far only Scot to win a Wimbledon singles title.

• Ian Collins, a Scot who reached two Wimbledon doubles finals on the same day in the 1920s, also captured the Scottish title in that era despite having what critics unkindly described as “a service action resembling a monkey mounting a pole”.

• One of the most prolific winners was John Clifton, a Stewart’s College FP, while Harry Roulston, former editor of the Evening News, shared the title with David Lloyd in 1972 when rain washed out play.

• Mariana Simonescu, one-time wife of Bjorn Borg, won in 1976 to be followed a year later by Martina Navratilova while Judy Murray, mother of Andy and Jamie, was triumphant in 1981.

• The period 1987-89 featured the likes of grand slam tournament victors John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis and Gabriela Sabatini while 1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade is also a past competitor.

• In the mid-1990s, the Craiglockhart grasscourts were removed as part of a redevelopment and the tournament spent two years in Stockbridge courtesy of the Dyvours (Grange) club.

McEnroe memories

Parkinson had his Meg Ryan moment when the actress chose to evade questions on his TV chat show and Clive Anderson was left with empty chairs when the Bee Gees walked out on him, writes Bill Lothian.

Without comparing myself with those interviewing giants, Tuesday, June 13, 1989 is recalled by me for similar reasons.

Dispatched by the Evening News to Edinburgh Airport to interview John McEnroe on arrival to contest the Bank of Scotland Scottish Tennis Championships, the assignment turned into an odyssey lasting seven hours.

After a series of flight delays the great man set foot in the concourse and I chose my moment to politely approach – only to be treated with withering contempt.

There is a certain taxi driver of my acquaintance who witnessed the encounter and remains convinced I was told to “F*** off, jerk”; until re-reading my subsequent report, that was the impression I still held. Time dims the memory and depending on whose version you believe the interview amounted to either five words – “absolutely” and “you’ll find out tomorrow” – or eight!

What I do know is that after our encounter McEnroe never again won a Wimbledon title and generally faded from view so far as I am concerned.