David Owen

What will John Bercow do with his spare time now he has decided to step down as Speaker of the House of Commons?

Well, he has a young family; and I should think a memoir of his days at the heart of Britain's debilitating Brexit meltdown may be close to top of the 56-year-old's "To do" list.

But I also wonder whether a further foray into sports books might be on the agenda.

John Bercow, in blue, considers Roger Federer the greatest ©Getty Images
John Bercow, in blue, considers Roger Federer the greatest ©Getty Images

Five years ago, while David Cameron was still in 10 Downing Street and the country was yet to be convulsed in constitutional crisis, Bercow published a weighty – 322-page – tome called Tennis Maestros.

The book chiefly consists of a series of profiles of athletes Bercow considers to have been the 20 greatest male tennis players of all time.

These are detailed, analytical, studied pieces by an enthusiast who was once a fine junior player in his own right. 

The tone could hardly be more different from the florid, sometimes testy admonitions – "I'm not interested in people chuntering from sedentary positions to no obvious benefit or purpose," and phrases of that ilk – with which he has sought to maintain order in the umpire's chair of democracy.

I was, however, interested to note that he marks down John McEnroe on grounds that "although his tantrums often distracted opponents, they also harmed him".

One of the rare rhetorical flourishes that did catch my eye in Bercow's text was the description of Roger Federer's peerless forehand as a "liquid whip".

As the author acknowledges, this perfect phrase was the work of the late David Foster Wallace.

Wallace's essays, Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley and Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness, include perhaps the best passages of tennis writing I have encountered.

Wallace, a self-proclaimed "near-great junior tennis player" who "made my competitive bones beating up on lawyers' and dentists' kids", was just a year older than taxi-driver's son Bercow; I would have liked to have seen them play a set or two, and eavesdropped on the banter.

Novak Djokovic, right, doesn't make Bercow's top 10, while Rafael Nadal is number two ©Getty Images
Novak Djokovic, right, doesn't make Bercow's top 10, while Rafael Nadal is number two ©Getty Images

The culmination of Bercow's book is, of course, an attempt to draw up an all-time top 20 ranking of male tennis players.

He has tried to be scrupulously fair and, one imagines, pondered long and hard about the relative merits of those whose attainments are most closely matched, while acknowledging that such a ranking can in no way be seen as definitive – "Indeed, it may not be long before I change my own mind."

Already, five years on from publication, I wonder whether Andy Murray would now be deemed to have done enough to supplant Roy Emerson, the 20th man, from Bercow's list, and how high he would have climbed in the Speaker's hierarchy.

For the record, here is Bercow's top 10, in reverse order: 10. Ken Rosewall (Australia) 9. Pancho Gonzales (USA) 8. Andre Agassi (USA) 7. Bill Tilden (USA) 6. Björn Borg (Sweden) 5. Pete Sampras (USA) 4. Don Budge (USA) 3. Rod Laver (Australia) 2. Rafael Nadal (Spain) 1. Roger Federer (Switzerland).

Bercow's justification for confining his analysis to male players is that "as a young man, I was first drawn to observation of the men’s game".

No doubt he was; but the erudition of his text makes plain that Bercow is an avid enough student of the sport to attempt a similar assessment of the greatest female players, from Suzanne Lenglen to Serena Williams.

Is Thierry Henry Arsenal's greatest player? ©Getty Images
Is Thierry Henry Arsenal's greatest player? ©Getty Images

The Member of Parliament for Buckingham is also a keen fan of the North London football club, Arsenal.

An evaluation of the top 20 Greatest Gunners, from Ted Drake to Thierry Henry, could make another worthwhile project.

There is a timeless fascination with the top 20 format which derives from the simple fact that, however much hard data authors such as Bercow adduce, an element of subjectivity must always be there.

In the case of tennis, how would prior generations' champions have exploited modern rackets, strings and surfaces?

Or, in Bercow's words, and at a still more basic level, "If he were competing today, Bill Tilden could not consume a steak and fried potatoes followed by ice-cream an hour before squaring up against a super-fit gluten-free diet purist by the name of Novak Djokovic and expect to hold his own."

At the same time, the qualities required of, and exhibited by, champions change little with the passage of decades.

To this extent, comparisons across the years by those armed with the salient facts are legitimate and feasible.