“Murray will win Wimbledon.” A definitive statement but all the more surprising when you find out that it was made years before Andy Murray was anywhere near the champion he became. The man who made that statement was Gerald Williams a distinguished journalist and tennis commentator of 40 years. Gerry passed away in January 2016. It is difficult to watch Wimbledon coverage without thinking back to an interview we conducted with this lovely gentleman so many years ago.
A tennis commentator and journalist. Williams wrote for the Croydon Advertiser and the Daily Mail. He was a studio guest on the nightly round-up of Wimbledon coverage on BBC television from 1981 to 1989 (from 1983 to 1989 with Des Lynam). Williams also spoke fondly of Lynam during an interview at his home in Llangynog a few years before he died.
Gerry as he liked to be called as a very modest man considering the circles he moved in. Sharing plane flights sitting alongside the likes of Bjorn Borg and being complimented by legends like Billy Jean King. I interviewed Gerry at his modest home perched high up in the village of Llangynog overlooking Bancyfelin, another village famous for sports stars.
Gerry was a journalist first and foremost. He had many friends in the business including the famous boxing commentator Harry Carpenter.
Speaking about his memories of Harry Carpenter Gerry said: I only have good memories of Harry really. I had left Carmarthen grammar school and had a vague idea that I would try to be a journalist. I had written to the four weekly newspapers in Croydon where I had been brought up. We were partly brought up here and partly in Croydon. I offered to work for a month for nothing. Three didn’t reply but the fourth, which was by far, the best the Croydon advertiser offered me a month’s work without pay. After the second week the old editor called me in and asked me what I was going to do. I told him that I thought that I would like to go university. He looked down form his office onto Croydon high street and he said the university you want is out there in that street, ill never forget that. One of our local celebrities was Harry carpenter and I got to know him and his wife quite well. A couple of years on I worked on the Leicester Mercury and six months on the South Wales Echo. I went back to the Croydon advertiser as a sports editor. Soon after that Harry was having a liquid lunch with the sports editor on the daily mail. The editor told Harry he was looking for a young chap from the provinces that are really keen and prepared to work all hours. Harry told him that he knew this chap Gerald Williams on his local paper that was terrific and a bit mad. A series of remarkable things happened. I joined as sports sub editor, which I didn’t like I wanted to get out and be there. I went into the office one day and there was an awful atmosphere in there everybody was quiet and solemn. I asked what’s the matter then a football writer told me to shut up. I said what’s the matter with everybody and he said haven’t you heard, the Manchester united plane has crashed in Munich and most of the players have been killed and Eric Thompson our Manchester football writer has been killed. I must admit the first thing I wondered was who would get Eric’s Job and two weeks later I got his job. I was sent up to Manchester to report on the Busby babes and the rebirth of that great club. I had a couple of years there and then came back to London.”
Gerry had a strong Christian faith and said it was the most important thing in his life. He was brought up in a church going family and his parents and older brother David were people of great faith and conscience. He said “I’d like to think that I picked some of that up from them.”
The Welsh connection may have helped Gerry in his career. He was asked to become a tennis radio commentator by fellow Welshman and BBC executive Cliff Morgan. Gerry said that he had learned his craft from the greats of tennis commentary like Dan Maskell and Bill Threlfall.
Gerry had also been involved in Amateur Dramatics and was able to use his voice for radio commentary describing the action but knowing when to just allow the sound of the atmosphere dominate. Gerry teamed up with Des Lynam for BBC’s radio coverage of the tournament and the pair worked well together often caught in fits of giggles if something got them going. Gerry Williams appeared with Des Lynam from 1983 to 1989. Speaking about that time Gerry said: “Desmond Lynam and I were at BBC radio working under Cliff Morgan. Desmond was the first to go across to television and he told me he didn’t think I would like it but we kept in touch. After a year or so he called me and told me he thought I should go across because TV had changed. Cliff put Des and I together for the nightly Wimbledon highlights programme, which we did for 9 years. We were just being who we are with each other it was a simple as that. In sport on television I don’t think there has ever been another like Des Lynam. He is good looking he has a good voice and good vocabulary and he looks so relaxed.”
Gerry was not a fan of on court antics of the enfant terrible of Tennis. He was also famously ticked of by John McEnroe who asked for the Brit Commentator to lower his voice. When I asked Gerry if we needed another McEnroe in tennis he said: “No, I think tennis is in a golden era now. I saw and had a brief chat with John McEnroe at Wimbledon this year. It was nothing personal I just felt that in that period where the game had gone professional but hadn’t really organised itself in terms of codes of conduct anything went. The problem was that the umpires at the time didn’t know what authority they had. McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were raging from time to time and the umpires weren’t sure what they were allowed to do under the rules and the players didn’t know either. It all came to a wonderful end because it got a lot of publicity for the sport but it also brought great shame on the sport. What happened was an American umpire wrote out a code of conduct. As soon as everyone knew what the rules were it stopped. I think it is a golden age now not only in the standard of play but the behaviour of the players as well.”
There was no doubt in Gerry’s mind that the greatest player of all time was Roger Federer. Speaking about Federer and having been asked if his opinion had changed in the light of the success of Rafael Nadal Gerry said: “In the case of Federer he is the most perfect player I have ever seen. Everything about him, his movement his attitude, his shot making, his elegance and his style. It has reached a peak where he is perfect as a tennis player. Rafael Nadal is very much a homegrown muscle man with terrific determination never to give in. This golden age is because you now have two really great players at the top who are really very different.”
For Gerry the golden age of tennis had passed and he was proud to have been a part of that. Asked what his best and worse moments were during his tennis commentary career Gerry said: “I can only generalise really I think the worse was that period of time with all the indiscipline. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes I’d be doing the commentary and criticising the players for their behaviour and thoroughly enjoying it. I can remember one match that John McEnroe played in the final at Queens club. His behaviour was appalling but there I was sitting there doing the commentary and thoroughly enjoying it feeling like a complete sham. In terms of the beauty of the game it gets better all the time. There have been so many great moments haven’t there but Federer’s years would be the best moments. I hope Feeder’s time isn’t over. I was puzzled at the way he was moving on the court this year. I couldn’t make up my mind whether he had begun to loose that intensity. If you haven’t got that you’re not going to be a champion any longer. When he was beaten this year I was keen to get to the press conference to find out what he said because I felt that I might be able to make a judgement rightly or wrongly. He was asked ‘are you fit’ and he said ‘no I have had problems for several weeks now’. That could be partly loosing his desire too event though he might not recognise it as such. As to whether we will see Federer at his glorious best again we will have to wait and see. The American Open will be an interesting time, that’s the next grand slam.”
Asked what he thought of the BBC’s commentary on Wimbledon Gerry hesitated and was reluctant to air his views. Finally he said: “Commentary styles change. I was brought up with Dan Maskell in a commentary box. Des and I were never in a commentary box together we were in a studio. There was something about Dan’s voice and his respect for the game and his deep knowledge for the technique of the game and his great memory of great moments. I can remember listening to the commentary of Dan Maskell and Jack Kramer. It never occurred to me that one day I would be sitting in a commentary box with Dan on the centre court at Wimbledon. Dan was sitting there giving his commentary and I thought you’ve made it here mate. I think there has to be room for styles to change and that’s O.K. Where I would question some of the BBC’s decisions are that they seem to think that if you have been a really good tennis player you’ll make a good commentator. McEnroe is a great commentator he’s different, he’s his own man. I listen to some of them and I think oh dear, Dan wouldn’t have approved of that.”
Another of Gerry’s heroes was commentator William (Bill) Threlfall. Speaking of their relationship Gerry said: “Bill and I were made for each other. It was a marriage made in heaven. We could disagree and sometimes quite sharply and yet it didn’t make any difference to the relationship. We loved going around the world following the championships. Socially after the day’s play and commentary we were good for each other. We liked the same restaurants and same food. He was a great commentator he had a great voice and he had a sense of humour. I remember we doing some commentary on a match in Düsseldorf one day. Something happened on the court and we just broke into laughter and continued chuckling in the commentary. One of the English papers wrote saying what a nice change it was to hear two commentators laughing. When he died very suddenly I felt that a bit of me had gone. Our relationship was not as close as Desmond and I at that level but in a commentary box we had terrific rapport.”
Gerry mixed with the biggest names in Tennis during his illustrious career. One of those was Bjorn Borg. Gerry spoke fondly of the Swedish tennis maverick. He said: “I remember sitting on an aeroplane after Bjorn had virtually retired. I was going out to Doha to do commentary for one of these over thirty-five tournaments. I went to the business lounge at Heathrow and Bjorn was there. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might be playing because you didn’t hear too much about him playing in those days. So we had a glass of wine together and sat together in the plane. I said to him Bjorn I hope you don’t mind me asking you this but one hears about you having had some unsuccessful business enterprises is that why you are playing. Ill never forget what he said ill never forget it has proven so true in my own life subsequently, he said no, these people are my family and I thought wow and boy have I felt that in the last few years. They become your family you fly all over the world with them you get to know their families. I was covering Wimbledon for sky this year and I had along chat with Billie jean king she’s always very generous, she tells people I was the first person to take her and see the centre court in Wimbledon. Stan smith and his wife were there and these people are my family.”
Gerry was also a fan of British tennis player Tim Henman. Speaking about Henman’s playing days Gerry said: “Tim Henman has been fantastic in Wimbledon, terribly underrated. His record was Wimbledon semi finalist twice French semi finalist twice an amazing record. For a player without a big shot not a big lad who can go in and dominate people he was a very very good player. He was also a very unlucky player. He was playing Goran Ivanisevic in the semi finals at Wimbledon in 2001 and he was all over Goran. He had tamed his serve when suddenly the heavens opened and rain stopped play. It was his match and he would have gone into the finals for sure. I remember saying something in my commentary like; the danger is now that Henman having broken him is that Goran will go out with his entourage, which included a priest if I remember. Goran may be told that tomorrow you may get an early break in the tiebreak and that is exactly what happened. Tim may always be remembered for never having got to a Wimbledon final but he is a remarkable bloke a very nice man and I am delighted to learn that he has got onto the committee at Wimbledon. He is going to be of terrific value to the game he understands the players how they feel about things. Andy Murray is a better player than Tim and he has already been in two grand slam finals. I would have thought that in the next 5 or ten years he is likely to win one or two grand slam championships. There is nothing he cant do on a tennis court he has every shot. Maybe as he gets older he will put on some bodily bulk and that is not a bad thing. A lot of things have to happen for you to win a grand slam. One player being unfit is someone else’s good luck. Andy Murray is going to need a bit of luck now and then. We mustn’t put too much pressure on the bloke. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world the pressure we put on our players. It becomes a national obsession and I don’t know how the players cope.
I asked Gerry at the time about the role of parents a tennis coaches tot their children. Given that parents or relatives have coached some of the latest champions I asked if he thought that parents make good coaches?
Gerry was confident in his response. He said: “As coaches probably not. I think you need people who have played at the highest level. Most players have come out of a tennis playing family. British tennis has begun to recover. Too much attention is paid to other things and what the lawn tennis association should concern themselves with is the state of the clubs. I am involved with the tennis club here in Carmarthen. I would expect that our chairman would get calls from the various tennis organisations asking how things are going, do they need anything but it just doesn’t happen. During Wimbledon our junior membership shot up. That’s when we should be ready for this junior enthusiasm.
Bearing in mind that this interview was carried out in 2010 and I had asked Gerry What British tennis needs to do in order to produce a Wimbledon champion. His answer and prediction was spot on. He said: “We have probably got one, could be Andy Murray. British tennis can’t do anything, it just happens. My colleagues go on about why we haven’t got any players. When I was first covering tennis the players were coming from all over the place Australians, Swedes, Czechs, but where are all their players now? I think all you can do is make sure that the clubs which is where it all begins are in a healthy situation financially with good courts and good equipment and that young players who show promise are given support.”
Asked what kind of shape is tennis was in on a local level Gerry replied: “Not in good shape but we are in Wales and Wales is a rugby-playing nation. Having said that Michael Davies came from Swansea and Gerald Battrick was a great player. Someone will come along and no one can know where that will be from.”
I asked Gerry if he could sum up his life in one sentence what would it be. He said: “Simply wildly beyond any dream I could possibly have. When I was in the little village school here in Llangynog during the worse of the blitz it never occurred to me that I could have seen the world umpteen times and become on such good terms with the great tennis players. They are personal friends and that is an amazing thing to have happened.”
The interview with Gerald Williams was carried out at his home in Llangynog in 2010.