Innocents abroad probably thought that a simple tennis tournament was all that started in London last week. In fact, what also was occurring in glorious tandem to Wimbledon was something chock-full of far more fun and breathtaking excitement—another heated round of the ongoing circulation war within one of merry and randy olde England's cherished institutions, the tabloid press.
If you really have to faint, do it in private Diana—Charles Taunt as she collapses on Starvation diet. This was an actual headline last week in The Sun, London's most popular daily newspaper (circulation: four million), which purported to represent something that actually happened between the Prince and the Princess of Wales, as described in the soon-to-be best-seller Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton.
Because the serialization of Morton's book began two weekends before the championships, there was real fear that the Royals, not to mention the rumps (ENGELBERT RUMPERDINCK "PLEASE RELEASE ME" FROM MY UNDERPANTS was a headline from News of the World, a weekly tab with a circulation of five million, showing the legendary if awesomely over-the-hill singer Humperdinck, 56, sunbathing on a boat clad in something that appeared to be a thong), would push all news of Wimbledon into the small print on the inside pages of the tabloids amid the phone-sex lines and adverts for "auto setters," whatever they are, "Looks like a long fortnight for the Beastie Boys," said Hugh Jamieson of the Daily Mirror, the second-best-selling London tab (circulation: three million), referring to the proud coterie of upstanding journalists who are wont to kick butt and take names but not prisoners in the cause of truth (well, sort of), justice and the Anglican Way.
June 22, the opening day at the big W, seemed a dark one indeed for hungry monitors of tennis trivia when The Sun also went Royal on its front page: CHARLES: I'M SURE DIANA IS BEHIND THE BOOK. However, lest Wimbledon fans be forced into the streets cold turkey, The Sun greeted them on page 3 with pulsating news about two of their favorite stars. GABBY'S SERVE AND TROLLEY headlined a picture demonstrating how Gabriela Sabatini pushes her own cart at the grocery and a caption speculating about what she buys there. And WIMBLEDIN: YOU MUST CUT OUT YOUR GRUNT STUNT, MONICUGH IS TOLD detailed Monica Seles's "ear-splitting groans that register as loud as a diesel train" and also described her obnoxious grunting as "disgusting."
Three separate tabloid investigators brought their "gruntometers" to Seles's first-round match, against Jenny Byrne. Alas, Byrne was unable to push Seles through any noise-inducing long rallies, so John Jackson, a scribe from the Daily Minor, was soon ringing his office from courtside on a cellular phone. "Jackson here," he reported. "I am chagrined to say we have a gruntless Monica."
Nevertheless, two days later—the intrepid tabloiders realized that Seles's grunting would return as her matches got tougher—readers of The Sun opened up their fish wrapping to find that they could JOIN GREAT SUN TENNIS GRUNTATHON by phoning a special Groanline, whereupon they could hear Seles's noise and "imitate [her] Eeern-uuurgh as loudly as you can," following which "the best efforts on a decibel-meter...will win a smashing tennis racquet and 10 balls."
On June 25 the paper revealed to a gasping world that STEFFI'S BARKING! SHE PHONES HER POOCHES and brought to light the shocking discovery that "tennis ace Steffi Graf has a cure for feeling wuff...she calls her four dogs in Germany and natters to them over the phone. The Wimbledon champ misses her mutts so much, she rings the yelpline every day."
Quite naturally, the very next day the Daily Mirror, not to be scooped, took its place on the cutting edge of the news by reporting that Graf had said, "I need to talk to my dogs every night and morning," which (tongue in cheek) the champion had indeed said. And a Mirror headline screamed, simply enough, PAW GIRL!
In olden times—that is to say before banners like MARTINA THE HEARTBREAKER...HER TRAIL OF TEARS and I'LL BE A HOUSE HUSBAND LIKE LENNON, SAYS MAC—none of this would have mattered. Wimbledon used to mean not a twit to the "gutter press," which is how the tabloids are sometimes referred to, as opposed to "broadsheets," "qualities" or "posh papers" like The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer. Then as the flower children of the 1960s turned into world-class tennis players, upsetting officialdom along with the berry carts, the public responded, and, with that, Fleet Street ran with it.
The player who turned the tabs onto tennis was named, fittingly, Nasty. "I remember getting a call from the office one day in 1969," says the Daily Mirror's Nigel Clarke, the yeoman beast of the Beasties. "They told me to go to the Davis Cup match at Wimbledon. Our boys were playing against Romania, and some maniac clown was tearing the place apart."