25 January 2019

A farewell to Hugh McIlvanney

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Best known for his writing on boxing and football, whenever the late Hugh McIlvanney turned his pen to tennis it was a joy. Nigel Billen pays a brief tribute to a giant of sports journalism

Quite rightly, the obituaries for Hugh McIlvanney, the Sunday Times and previously Observer sports writer whose death was announced today, have concentrated on his coverage of football, boxing and horse racing. He was the defining chronicler of Mohamed Ali's boxing career and in retrospect it was obvious that Sir Alex Ferguson would employ McIlvanney as the ghost writer of his autobiography.

In truth, you won't find many archived pieces of his on tennis, but when he did turn his hand to our sport it was to raise the bar for everyone. He didn't write enough on tennis to be truly described as one of the greats, but - and I have known a few of them - there won't be many tennis correspondents writing in English who haven't been inspired by McIlvanney and his apparently instinctive appreciation of the sport.

Hard drinking, hardworking and to some extent self-taught, there was something in his Kilmarnock mining-family upbringing that gave him a natural empathy for one-on-one, gladiatorial sport (his passion for boxing was one that he could share with Andy Murray - they are pictured together in today’s Times obituary), but that is not to lazily say he saw the street fighter in these contests. His talent was for recognising the artistry in individual sporting greatness and going as much as any writer has to capture what makes a good sportsperson, great.

Take a journey back in time to July 12th 2015. Below is the beginning of Hugh McIlvanney's assessment of the upcoming battle between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for that year’s Wimbledon crown (you can read the full account by registering on The Times's website).

He was not to know that a Roger renaissance was still to come, or that Novak would also have to suffer a lull in his career and fight back to reclaim the top spot in tennis. But how Hugh McIlvanney would have relished trying to unravel the competing threads of tennis greatness in a still unfinished story.

ROGER FEDERER seems determined to inform the world that there has been an error in defining his era. He knows that many felt the assembling of powerful evidence for considering him the greatest player in the history of tennis had finished with the most recent of his 17 Grand Slam triumphs, the defeat of Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2012. For several seasons now, thrilling performances and compelling statistics have been declaring that this is the age of Novak Djokovic.

But out on Centre Court today Federer will attempt, for the second successive year, to show Djokovic and everybody else that his talent is too close to miraculous to tolerate the dictates of the calendar...


To read Hugh Mcilvanney's piece in full register at The Times