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2 July 2001

Pity Henman, the bearer of our twitchy national pride

By Robert Winder

The author Pete Davies was once asked to define football’s World Cup for an American audience. He said that it was a tournament in which 22 foreigners in shorts run around swearing at a referee, and Germany wins. Something similar could be said of Wimbledon: Borg, Navratilova, McEnroe, Sampras and the like take up residence for years at a time.

This is partly because tennis (while it looks fast and edgy) is a game of few upsets. Although Martina Hingis, the top woman seed, went out on Wimbledon’s opening day this year, higher-ranked players usually beat lower-ranked players. The margins may look fine (even the worst players look explosive to me), but they are sufficient to carry the day. Furthermore, this natural advantage is buttressed by a seeding system designed to ensure the survival of the top players into the final rounds. That is a commercial necessity, but it would be refreshing if the draw threw up Sampras v Agassi in the first round. The tournament could begin with a bang. As it is, the championship unfurls sedately across a fortnight, with a ceremonial final involving the usual big guns.

It must give tennis publicists a few head-aches as they attempt to drum up the heart-stopping suspense of their product. This year, with not even a Kournikova to throw to the tabloids, the tournament arrives with even fewer frissons of the unusual than ever. In the run-up, we had pictures of Tim Henman launching a website (wow!), and the news that Martina Hingis found Michael Owen “cute” (golly gumdrops!). The papers were even reduced to seaside postcard pictures of the hitherto unheard-of “British girls” in towels, enjoying their 15 seconds of fame. In an age when sport is all about developing ammunition for the global ratings war, these are slim pickings.

Even the attempts to inject whiffs of controversy seem a little tired. There is an intriguing suggestion that today’s millionaire tennis players often throw matches deliberately, because they have a plane to catch or a girl to meet. Otherwise, there is only the usual argument about women’s pay, which still excites equal-rights campaigners and reactionaries who seem to think that tennis players are in any sense paid by the hour. It seems to me that women tennis players should, in an ideal world, be paid the same as the men – just as male models should be paid as much as female models. I’m sure that the gorgeous boys who model jeans and sweatshirts work just as hard as the gorgeous girls, and suffer the same stresses: the trauma of a broken fingernail, the horrors of a peeling tan. It isn’t their fault that they do not generate anything like the same amount of publicity as female models. But we wait in vain for an equal-rights campaign on their behalf.

Wimbledon remains, invincibly, a showcase for the British sense of humour. Did you hear the one about Cliff Richard, a pigeon and a ball-boy? Something odd comes over the national comic impulse during this summer fortnight. Suddenly, nothing could be funnier than a mobile phone going off at a tense moment, or a line judge getting hit on the backside, or an umpire slipping on his ladder. Not since Henri Leconte’s stellar performance as man-handing-raquet-to-ball-girl has the nation been so entranced.

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Then there’s the British genius for queuing. This is a very reliable standby, as the tournament draws to its predictable close. Reporters go out in the middle of the night to interview South Africans huddled in sleeping bags along the walls of the All England Club. They inform us that there is a “marvellous spirit” out there, the true spirit of the genuine sports fan. And it’s true: these days, the genuine sports fan is motivated by nothing so fierce as the urge to get his face on television.

The idea that Wimbledon sparks a sudden interest in tennis, that you can’t get a court anywhere for love or money, is no longer true. The real tennis fans are too busy watching the telly, chuckling, as the sun goes down, over those marvellous mixed doubles (I do wish they showed more of them, don’t you?). The tennis courts of England lie empty and stranded for the full two weeks.

That’s sad. And it isn’t only because the professional game has become so fast that it bears almost no resemblance to the game played at weekends: it looks like table tennis, only on a bigger table. It is also a tribute to the ceaseless failure of the sporting authorities, and the government, to organise any serious development of young sporting talent. I was alarmed to read, the other day, that Labour has been as busy selling off school sports grounds as the Tories ever were. Now we have a sports minister who is already famous for his lack of interest in games. How likely is a man who can’t name a single European golfer to care about the inbred hostility to junior golf? At most English clubs, energetic programmes have been put in place that welcome children between the hours of 3am and 4am on the third Thursday of each alternate winter month (weather permitting). It is much the same story for tennis.

Alas, the only real spike of interest for the British press is Tim Henman. Can he do it? An alarming number of so-called experts have predicted success, on the grounds that Sampras is in decline (as if an on-form Sampras were the only serious threat to Henman’s chances). I fear for him. If he fails to win, he will probably get the full noisy blast of aggrieved vexation (the true spirit of the genuine sports writer) in the neck. For years, we have put up with the foreigners: we smile if they can be persuaded to say that Wimbledon is their favourite championship (the crowd is so knowledgeable!). Henman finds himself the precarious bearer of a twitchy national pride. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.