- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England — They clap for every winner. Cheer for every ace. Hang on each half-volley that trickles across the tape.

For the British partisans massed on the grassy slope just outside Wimbledon’s Court1 — famously dubbed “Henman Hill” — pulling for homegrown hero Tim Henman is nothing short of a patriotic impulse.

Then again, so is expecting him to lose.

“To tell you the truth, I think they expect him to choke in the second week,” said Darren Pollard, a 26-year-old London resident.

The collective pessimism isn’t misplaced. And not simply because Henman, a four-time Wimbledon semifinalist and the No.10 seed, needed four sets to dispatch unheralded Tomas Zib in yesterday’s first round.

Long on irrelevance and short on results, British tennis languishes in a state of deep decline. While American fans revel in the success of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick — and have the luxury of choosing a favorite Williams sister — our friends across the pond are stuck backing the likes of Anne Keothavong and Jamie Delgado.

Both of whom, it should be noted, are already out of the draw. To no one’s great surprise.

“It’s very hard being a [British tennis] fan,” said Katie Legg, 19, from Braintree, Essex. “You’re devoted to these one or two players all of the time. And you end up disappointed.”

Disappointment is the order of the day in the home of the world’s most prestigious tournament. And that’s without mentioning the school lunch-grade mystery meat that passes for hamburger at the All-England Club’s Court1 concession stand.

Though Britain boasts 35 Wimbledon men’s singles titles — more than any other nation — the last came 67 years ago, when Fred Perry claimed the championship in 1936.

On the women’s side of the draw, 26 years have passed since Virginia Wade’s 1977 triumph, a sepia-tinged victory that still inspires stories in the British press.

In the here and now, only two British men — No.29 Henman and No.51 Greg Rusedski — are ranked in the ATP top 100. The next best player, Alex Bogdanovic, sits at No.305.

By contrast, Britain’s top woman, Keothavong, occupies a relatively lofty WTA ranking of No.145.

Writing in the London Observer, Jon Henderson noted that while the top 100 isn’t home to a single British woman, it does contain 16 players whose surname ends in “-ova.”

“Digging out statistics that shame British tennis is too easy to be much fun,” Henderson lamented.

Perhaps with that in mind, famed bookmaker William Hill put the odds of an all-British Wimbledon men’s final at 125-1, about the same as Prince Charles announcing plans to father another child.

Hill also put the odds of a female British champion at 1,000-1, roughly equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury confirming the Second Coming.

True to form, only three of the 15 British players in the Wimbledon draw have advanced to the tournament’s second round.

The highlight? Lee Childs’ opening-day upset of No.33 seed Nikolay Davydenko — which, while impressive, probably won’t lower Hill’s odds.

“We haven’t got that many players,” said British fan James Bardeoo, 18, from Braintree, Essex. “It’s not like the Americans. They’ve got half the draw.”

Why the malaise? The lack of tennis prowess from a nation that once ruled Centre Court?

According to Britain’s Lucie Ahl, a first-round loser to No.13 seed Ai Sugiyama, England’s famously wet weather is partially to blame.

“We have to play indoors a lot of the time,” she said. “I think grassroots at a younger level, it’s very expensive for kids to play indoors.

“There’s a lot more courts in America and other countries in Europe, which is something that [English tennis officials] are addressing, trying to actually subsidize so kids can just jump on court and play. That’s the biggest problem. We just don’t have enough people playing.”

Pollard said British tennis organizations and clubs don’t do enough to bring youngsters into the sport.

“[Tennis] is too expensive,” he said. “And it’s not marketed well. The TV here, they don’t show many of the tournaments. And we’re focused on other sports. In the schools, they push football and rugby.”

In an effort to boost the nation’s sagging tennis fortunes, Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association recently appointed David Felgate, Henman’s former coach, as its director of performance.

The LTA also hired Rebecca Miskin, a former executive for the well-known Ministry of Sound nightclub, as its first director of tennis operations.

Despite repeated requests, neither Felgate nor Miskin were available to comment for this story.

“With someone like David Felgate who has a lot of experience at the top end of the game, who has also played himself and worked with different people before he worked with Tim [Henman], I think that can only be a good thing,” Ahl said. “As long as people are patient, I think we’ll start getting results in a few years.”

In the meantime, British fans have little choice but to take what they can get. No matter how meager it may be.

At the recent Samsung Open, held in Nottingham, the master of ceremonies introduced the 19-year-old Bogdanovic as “the new teenage sensation of tennis.”

Never mind, of course, that Bogdanovic’s biggest moment to date came in a Davis Cup match last February, when he notched an early service break en route to a straight-sets loss against Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt.

“The jokes will be cracked again shortly as the world’s attention turns to Wimbledon, only to witness once more the deficiencies of our native talent,” wrote John-Paul Flintoff in the Financial Times.

Flintoff then cracked a joke of his own, suggesting that Henman’s best chance at victory would come with the invention of a new form of tennis — one in which Britain’s last best hope plays against “no human opponents.”

Back on Henman Hill, Legg unhappily concurred.

Henman’s “got the motivation, but not the talent,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll make it.”

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