THE BRITISH OPEN - THE WAY WE WERE - AND PERHAPS OUGHT NOT TO HAVE BEEN

"Darling," his wife said to him after he returned home late one evening. "Do you think we could go upstairs and make love?" "Darling," he replied. "I don't think I could possibly do both."
 
Once upon a time British Open decision-making seemed to be influenced by people a bit like that. To hear some talk the day the tournament left the capital after most of half a century there, you'd have thought the crown jewels were being sent to a pawn shop.
 
Even when the tournament moved to the attractive new Derby Assembly rooms in 1983 they seemed to find it hard to embrace the idea that this was not the London Open, and the 'exile' lasted only a week.
 
After that the Open returned to the smoke for another eleven years, at the end of which there was an even more ridiculous to-do before it was allowed to go to Cardiff in 1995.
 
One prominent person actually offered a £50,000 reward for anyone who could prevent ye olde tourney from leaving England. It's embarrassing to recall, especially as two of the best three years the British Open ever had were those which it spent in Cardiff.
 
Since then it has been to Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester, hopefully altering perspectives enough for people to see a move to Liverpool as progress and not a sign of provincial decay.
 
Those metro retros who still think of London as the only epicentre might like to know that none other than Charles Dickens gave readings of his own work in the amazing St Georges Hall and that Sir John Betjeman even claimed he would "gladly lay down his life to save this building."
 
That's not to say the British Open didn't make pioneering progress as it grew away from the Georgian grandeur of the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair and from the Edwardian splendour of the RAC Club in Pall Mall.
 
A short interlude in the sixties at two very characterful racket sports clubs, Abbeydale in Sheffield and Edgbaston Priory in Birmingham, was followed by a move to the functional Wembley Squash Centre in the seventies and then to the corporate urbanity of the Wembley conference centre in the eighties.
 
During that time the British Open morphed from bear-pits to fish-tanks.  Courts evolved from plaster to plastic to perspex and then to glass, and from galleries of a couple of hundred to crowds of two or three thousand.
 
Time-honoured ways of doing things were replaced by hopeful innovations, some of which inevitably led to instructively hilarious cock-ups along the way.
 
No longer might a ball be lobbed accidentally into a spectator's beer as Jonah Barrington did with a rare error along the backhand sidewall at the traditional Edgbaston centre court. In fact some spectators were barely able to see the ball at all when the British Open moved to the Wembley Conference Centre.
 
That's because its first all-transparent court was placed on the stage in order to cram more spectators on the arena floor. This meant, according to Rex Bellamy, by far the best squash writer of them all and also the most caustic, that it was "like watching a couple of cockroaches copulating on a distant beach."
 
But the following year the court was placed on the floor with spectators surrounding it, and it worked brilliantly. It even achieved page leads in some of the national press, though this was aided by Lisa Opie tossing her racket over the back wall as she lost the final to Susan Devoy and showing two fingers to the ref as she left the court, all captured in the starkest close-up by TV cameras.
 
Opie was fined and banned, and rather cruelly pilloried for that. These days she might have had a less conspicuous form of censure, but fortunately she made spectacular amends in 1991 by becoming the first home women's winner of the British Open for 30 years.
 
Her misdemeanours were minor compared with those a couple of years later by those of Kevin Shawcross, the affable but unpredictable former World Amateur Champion, who produced a remarkably well focussed performance in the same arena considering that the police were waiting in the wings to arrest him.
 
Shawcross liked a drink or twenty-two, and had played inadvertent pin-ball with his car along the Chelsea High Street. It took all the self-deprecating persuasiveness of Andrew Shelley, then working for the Squash Rackets Association, to prevent police from interrupting Shawcross's match.
 
Around that time the impulsive Tristan Nancarrow made some remark about a referee's ancestry and was also punished for it, bringing reports that the fierry Queenslander had been rapped over the knuckles by the International Squash Players Association, as it was called then. Unfortunately one paper reported it, with one of those disconcerting errors of the old hot metal print, as Nancarrow having been "raped over the kruckles." By whom, we wanted to know.
 
However there was a time when the women players were more contentious than the men. On-court arguments between them had become frequent in the early eighties and there had even been one or two instances of wrestling matches.
 
This was when the women's British Open was a moving separate event, and at Brighton one year, fractious incidents had become so frequent that the tournament referee called all of the last sixteen players into the changing room, telling them to put a sock in it or some of them would be getting an early shower. Can't imagine that now.
 
But in times gone by many things were less professional than today.
 
During the seventies Heather McKay, the legendary sixteen times British Open Champion, would sometimes win so swiftly that she would complete her match, and then move off to have an hour's practice with Torsam Khan, ranked amongst the top twenty men, before slipping away for a fag. She was still fitter and stronger than the rest.
 
There were colourful tales too, both about and from Devoy, the eight times British Open Champion from New Zealand, who told us how she would hide under her parents' house and then slope off to play squash rather than go to school.
 
Devoy had her differences with the British press, and once held a lunch to try to improve relations. "Giving a speech is like having a baby," she told us. "Easy to conceive but hard to deliver." My, how she did deliver.
 
The press certainly had their quirks. It's now folklore that reporters bellowing down telephones to a copy-taker - there were no laptops then - caused all sorts of words to be misheard.
 
Once this led to the mistaken result that Brett Martin had bitten his brother Rodney Martin. At least this wasn't quite as absurd as the ATP Tour once appearing as the 80p tour, and the British Open being played on a grass court.
 
But the press piece de resistance was that of Dicky Rutnagur, the Daily Telegraph stalwart who became so infuriated with adjectives being removed from his copy that he devised a way of getting his own back.
 
He sent a Christmas card to the sub-editor he thought was most responsible for this butchery and put a little note at the bottom saying: "Please don't cut out the 'happy'."
 
Even in today's tougher, more competitive world, isn't this to a significant extent still what it is all about?

By Richard Eaton
There's a well-known story about the London business man who had been so pre-occupied by the city and his job that after a good few years he was no longer up to much else.