Written by Allan Hall
If the two tribes of reporters and photographers are as different as can be, then the sub-species ‘sports journalist’ are remoter still. They are children in adult form, generally, immersed in their hobby that just happens to pay them a handsome wage to boot.
They get to be close to their heroes, forming a bond that is often as not illusory, but one which they nonetheless cherish. The times that a top sporting personality has fallen spectacularly from grace, only for a groin strain – their popular trade nickname – to boast that he knew about their dark secret months before, are too numerous to list. They are left alone to get on with chronicling the heading skills of such-and-such a striker, the swiveling grommets in the cockpit of an F1 racer and the backhand service return of such tennis legends as Marina Navratilova.
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Martina Navratilova. Now there was a woman who excited passions in newsrooms, not least because she, well, rode on the other bus. And when, in the gloriously hot summer of 1985 she stepped out at the French Open with her lover Judy Nelson by her side, the repressed passions of male-dominated newsrooms were stirred to dizzy heights.
So it was that I was dispatched to the City of Light to attempt to speak with the pair about their relationship. Why? Search me.
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The sports reporter already in Paris had promised the newsdesk that he could get me into the Roland Gaross stadium “no problem” to approach them. Unfortunately, he had succumbed heavily to the pleasures of the grape by the time I arrived with a photographer and incapable of telling Martina Navratilova from the president of France. There followed an ugly scene in which a table was overturned, glasses smashed and Le Flic summoned until he produced a wad of francs which soothed the proprietor whose bar he had partially wrecked and blundered off into the night.
It was 9.00pm. Nothing for it but to find somewhere to eat and ponder the tabloid ambush that would undoubtedly have to be effected the next day.
The restaurant the photographer and I pitched up in sadly no longer exists, squeezed out by high rents and declining culinary expectations among younger Parisians. Aux Charpentiers on the Left Bank in Rue Mabillon presented bistro classics with a light touch. I mourn its passing but you can still honour it by cooking its recipes.
The Cheese and Garlic Aubergine Fritters are simple to make and the Duck in Port Sauce with Green Olives is delicious. Duck can sometimes be a bit of a tyranny; getting the legs cooked through while the breast remains pinkish and moist, preparing a suitable sauce for its rich, suave meat. But the way they did it at Aux Charpentiers is foolproof!
The boulevards of Paris were alive and bustling by the time we made it to the Roland Garros centre where the pickled sports hack from the night before was waiting. If he was anymore sheepish he would have had a fleece.
Guilt and remorse propelled him to work a miracle with the tennis tournament organisers, persuading them to let myself and the photographer within its hallowed grounds. Which was all we needed to ambush Judy and her sons as she stepped from a limo, kissed Martina on the cheek and proceeded to walk to her assigned space to see her lover demolish the opponent du jour.
What does a tabloid hack need? Not much. “I cherish Martina” was her comment to me and I knew we were off to the races, especially as lensman Alan Steele (sadly no longer with us – he tended to take most of his nourishment in liquid form during his truncated life) got a picture of me striding alongside the quarry.
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There existed a finely balanced, unwritten contract between roadmen like me and the desk dwellers back home about success being rewarded with high living – failure = not-so-high living. I knew we had hit the jackpot with this story and I was mentally calculating how it would be parlayed later into fine dining at a restaurant a cut above Aux Charpentiers.
Considering the job done, I congratulated myself with an abundance of kir royales and glasses of chilled Chablis served with homemade Parmesan biscuits at one of the bars within Roland Garros. I was on the cusp of serious overservement when London threw a spanner in the works by ordering me to Martina’s post-match press conference to ask her about her lesbian relationship with a married woman. The temerity of it!
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Wobbling unsteadily in my dark London suit and tie, I made it into the salon where hordes of groinies from around the world, all clutching numerous tote bags crammed with freebies heaped on them by sporting goods companies seeking to buy complimentary future articles, were seated ready to swoon in the presence of their heroine.
She arrived after slaughtering some unknown on the red clay of the Garros arena, confident in her supremacy, accomplished in her dealings with sports hacks.
“Martina,” shouted one, “your serve seemed a little hesitant in the third game of the first set. Was that old injury from….blaah…blaaah….blaaah.”
“Martina,” yelled another. “Was the surface giving you a little trouble during the service game where….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”
“Martina,” I blurted out in a brief pause. “Can you tell me if your relationship with Judy Nelson has affected your play at all in this tournament?”
A witch at the Salem trials could not have been more reviled. Who was this red-faced, sweating scumbag who had crashed the sporting conclave to upset the free-gift, non-controversial, non-threatening coterie of tennis groupies? The hiss of disapproval, accompanied by shouts of “get him outta here,” filled the auditorium.
To be fair to Martina, she did answer me; “I feel sorry for you if you think that it might have affected my game because if you knew anything about tennis at all you would know that I have not dropped a game since I came here.” I was about to attempt a follow up question when strong armed security men gripped me, propelled me to the door and hurled me outside, accompanied by the handclapping and cheers of the groin strains who felt equilibrium had been restored and could now concentrate on further questions regarding Martina’s dazzling skill.
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Paris in summer, and at the height of a major sporting tournament, is a busy place. If there was a hotel to be found for that night, it eluded Alan and I. London was as useful as a chocolate fireguard in finding us accommodation. At 9.00pm, still without a bed for the night, we found ourselves in the underground and contemplating riding a train out into the suburbs to seek shelter.
“Can I help you?” A young man with a compellingly beautiful woman on his arm, approached me as I struggled, post Martina, to make sense of the Metro map. I told him our dilemma and he replied; “No problem – you can stay at my parents’ apartment.”
Fearing we were about to feature unwillingly in some Batman & Robin XXX movie, I looked at Alan who shrugged as if to say; what have we got to lose? Nothing it seemed, but I insisted on buying the couple dinner – and what a dinner it was.
We departed for the deluxe Paris bistro of Benoit, perhaps the most stylish and expensive establishment of its type in Paris, described in the words of the city’s most famous restaurant critic Claude Lebey all those years ago, as “The Rolls Royce of Paris bistros.”
Overpriced it certainly is, especially for meals that any interested cook can rustle up for a fraction of their cost at home. Like its take on the simple macaroni cheese.
Desserts at Benoit are mostly classical – a chocolate marquise, a creme caramel or creme brulee, the latter being one of my personal favourites, and so easy to make. Double the quantities for double the servings.
Little at Benoit is cooked using what one may describe as luxury ingredients – truffles, caviar, foie gras. But expensive it surely is and on that night 33 years ago my wallet was lighter to the tune of 400 pounds. But who’s counting? Not I.
There was no hidden camera at the home of our host. We went to sleep on children’s bunk beds with a toy silver mobile turning in on the ceiling as Alan opened the fifth floor window gazing down on to the Boulevard Hausmann and remarking: “Bloody good view.”
There was no problem with our expenses either. We had succeeded and were rewarded as was the way back then.