Sport - Jason Cowley considers the trouble with tennis

Tennis in Britain is not a game at all. It's just a fortnight

Why, when we have Wimbledon, are there so few British tennis players of world repute? A couple of months ago I was present at a lunch at which several leading officials from the Lawn Tennis Association attempted to answer this vexed question. Tennis, they said, was a popular game in Britain. More and more youngsters were joining tennis clubs and the quality and commitment of coaches had never been higher. It would not be long before the next Tim Henman emerged to compete for all the right honours.

I was not convinced. Tennis in Britain is and will remain a minority sport: the game of the affluent white middle classes. It is not simply a question of the scarcity of public courts, nor of entrenched class prejudice on both sides, but also of attitude and perception.

A couple of years ago I joined the local tennis club in the small Hertfordshire town where I live. I took my subscription around to the club secretary, a grey-haired man in late middle age who lived in a detached house on a smart executive estate, a short walk away from the club itself. He greeted me with suspicion and received the envelope in which my cheque was enclosed as if it were a small bomb. He did not smile, nor did he pause to welcome me to the club. This was not simply generational English reserve: my overwhelming impression of the encounter was one of absolute coldness - and so it was at the club itself, where I remained a member for less than a year and scarcely played at all.

I often wondered how a young black, perhaps inspired by the Williams sisters, might have been received at the club, or others like it. Would his enthusiasm have survived a meeting with the club secretary, or with the middle-aged men and women who gathered around the bar to gossip about absent friends and about who was sleeping with whom and when?

Yet the Wimbledon championships, at which I watched the long-limbed teenage Russian sensation Maria Sharapova beat Serena Williams in the women's final, is different. For all its facade of privilege and elitism - the strawberries and cream, the champagne, the green blazers, and the retired colonels (most of whom resemble a cross between Tim Yeo and Cecil Parkinson) who are everywhere to be seen, on the gates and in the press rooms - Wimbledon is an oddly democratic event. It is, I think, the only major international sporting event for which you can turn up on the day, pay on the gate, and get in without having had to order tickets, so long as you are prepared to queue.

The All-England Club itself is a place of grace and serenity. It is very commercial, but not ruthlessly so. It has, unlike Epsom, which in seeking to popularise the Derby has simply destroyed it, resisted turning Wimbledon into a mass day out for drunks and brawlers.

But something is wrong. And it has nothing to do with Wimbledon, or indeed with the introversion of so many tennis clubs. It is, rather, to do with the game itself, with tennis.

Tennis at the highest level is a supreme expression of individualism. It is not, unlike football, rugby or cricket, a team game, which attracts the devotion of supporters who follow a club or national side through the long narrative of a season or an international competition. Tim Henman has many fans, but ultimately he plays only for himself. He is, like most top professional players, a very accomplished money-making machine.

I concede that he occasionally represents Britain in the Davis Cup. But who in this country is interested in or knows anything about the Davis Cup? Who can say that they have been to watch a Davis Cup tie or when, if ever, Britain has won the competition?

No, tennis in Britain is not a game: it is, as Tim Adams wrote in Being John McEnroe (Yellow Jersey Press), his book about the American maverick, a fortnight. That is how it will remain.

Hunter Davies returns in the autumn

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