Assuming that the rain may stop in June, Wimbledon '98 will begin on Monday. History has repeatedly seen British interest in the tournament evaporating after its first week, but that still gives the general public plenty of time to hit one of the numerous public courts in London.

Most councils have courts available, many free of charge. Hammersmith & Fulham has free courts at Hammersmith Park, Shepherd's Bush, Normand Park and Eelbrook Common - just turn up and play on a first-come first- served basis. In the borough of Newham, all courts are free.

Once you've found a court nearby, you can check out the latest tennis rackets. With so many products on the market, it can be quite daunting to choose just one. Derek Akerman of Regal Sportswear offers some advice: "Lower-priced rackets are made from aluminium, which is a strong, lightweight metal. Prices start from around pounds 25. The more advanced rackets are made of a combination of aluminium and graphite. Graphite is stronger and lighter than aluminium and is used in the base of the racket for extra power.

"Complete graphite rackets are priced at around pounds 80 and offer greater power combined with less weight. If you're a beginner, and are uncertain how much to spend, seek advice from a good sports shop. Remember, you don't have to spend hundreds of pounds, but the better your racket is, the quicker your game will progress.

"Many of the higher-priced rackets are made of graphite or other metals like kevlar or titanium. The heads can be a little bigger than usual and the frame is usually thicker. This extra width gives the player much more power when hitting the ball."

Five of the best value-for-money rackets:

Prince Pendulum Lite: pounds 25

Wilson Sting Competition: pounds 50

Wilson Sting Tour: pounds 80

Prince Thunderstick: pounds 200

Head Titanium Racket: pounds 200

If you want additional information on where your local public courts are located, booking procedures, opening times and prices, call the appropriate number below:

Brent: 0181-937 5619

Camden: 0171-911 1693

Ealing: 0181-422 5132

Greenwich: 0181-317 5424

Hackney: 0181-806 2542/ 0171-729 4485

Hammersmith & Fulham: 0181-736 1735

Islington: 0171-477 3876

Lambeth: 0171-926 7291

Newham: 0181-552 0939


0181-891 1411 (All public courts are pay and display. A list/map of public courts can be obtained free from all council buildings.)

Tower Hamlets: 0171-364 5010

Wandsworth: 0181-871 6857

Westminster: 0181-336 2288/ 0181-686 6990