Life & Culture

The man who played Moldova at tennis

Comedian Tony Hawks dreamed up a very unusual sporting challenge


Almost 10 years ago, in September 1997, the comedian and writer Tony Hawks strolled round to visit his friend, fellow comedian Arthur Smith.

“I’d been playing tennis,” recalls Hawks, “and was still in my tennis kit. And we started watching a World Cup football qualifier on TV, England versus Moldova.”

England easily beat the Moldovans 4-0 and the talk between the two men turned to whether or not the Moldovan footballers were so terrible that even Hawks could beat them — but at tennis.

Thus was born Hawks’s book and film, Playing the Moldovans, with a commentary by one-time Wimbledon winner Pat Cash, in which Hawks takes on every member of the Moldovan squad at tennis. No spoilers, but things don’t end well for the Moldovans.

The film and Hawks himself are making an appearance at London’s JW3 on Sunday, July 2, on the eve of the opening of this year’s Wimbledon. The occasion is a fundraiser for the Freddie Krivine tennis programme in Israel, all the more appropriate, since the last of Hawks’s games against the Moldovans was played in Israel.

The good-humoured Hawks is a passionate tennis player (and former county champion) who has his own charity, Tennis For Free, aimed at opening up otherwise closed inner-city courts. So he was more than happy to help out the Freddie Krivine programme, which brings Jewish and Arab kids to play tennis together in northern Israel.

“I didn’t do a huge amount of research before going to Moldova,” he admits, “but I discovered that you had to have an invitation in order to get a visa, and I didn’t know any Moldovans”.

Fortunately, there turned out to be a Moldovan playing in a Beatles tribute band in Liverpool, so Hawks secured his visa after meeting him. He then engaged a translator, found a place to stay, and pitched up at the Moldovan Football Federation — to be greeted by absolute incredulity.

“This is a country where people had been imprisoned for eccentricity, so they really didn’t know what I was doing”, Hawks says. The fact that he was doing it for a bet with Arthur Smith was probably best kept to himself.

About seven of the squad that had played England were in Moldova proper, and the rest were playing abroad — hence the filming in Israel.

In a strange twist, Chris White, who edited the film, last year became the son-in-law of Jane Krivine, the chief executive of the Freddie Krivine charity.

So were the Moldovan footballers any good at tennis? Hawks ended up playing five of them in one day, so it doesn’t sound as though they were. It rather underlines the belief that tennis players are probably better athletes than footballers — as Hawks says, Unlike Andy Murray, footballers don’t have to sit in an ice bath after their matches.

I ask Hawks if he has any prediction for this year’s Wimbledon winner and to my surprise he comes up with a wild card, Austrian player Dominic Thiem.

Well, Hawks knows his tennis — and at least Thiem is not Moldovan.


‘Playing the Moldovans’, introduced by Tony Hawks and followed by a Q&A, is showing at JW3 on Sunday July 2.


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