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.