Silent Cliff keeps a wet Wimbledon crowd happy

THERE WAS an imprompturecital on Centre Court, a surprise appearance by the Duchess of York and enough Pimm's to sink a battleship at Wimbledon yesterday.

There was even some tennis; five shots, to be precise, played during a warm-up rudely terminated after 45 seconds when the heavens opened once again. For Tim Henman, who was waiting to resume his fourth-round match against the American Jim Courier, yesterday must have been exquisite torture. For loyal fans of Britain's fresh-faced favourite, it was an exasperating wash-out.

After forcing the pair to abandon their match on Monday evening as Henman led by two sets to one, the rain gushed all morning, dribbled on past the scheduled start of play at noon and slowed to a tantalising spit at about 2.30pm. The covers came off Centre Court and the exodus from the bars and hospitality tents began. Henman, who had wiled away the tense hours playing backgammon, walked on to court to tumultuous applause. He and Courier began knocking up, but less than a minute later a black cloud that had been hovering over south London moved into place above the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Greg Rusedski, the other British hopeful, did not even get close to his fourth-round clash against the Australian Mark Philippoussis, originally scheduled for Monday. After pacing the dressing room, Rusedski gave up in disgust and went home to his rented house in Wimbledon village.

Supporters who had turned up to cheer on the home favourites, particularly Henman, were made of sterner stuff. Hundreds had queued for tickets overnight, in a typically British triumph of optimism over weather forecast. When the gates opened, they sprinted to Centre Court to grab the best seats, where they sat expectant, rain lashing their faces.

Others huddled under umbrellas or laid out picnics in the covered walkways beneath the courts. The rain put paid to another Wimbledon fixture: the big screen on which matches are relayed to spectators without court tickets had a technical failure caused by the damp.

As the prospect of any tennis receded, a jazz band that usually resides on the tea lawn regrouped on Centre Court where it entertained the damp crowd. Among those who would not have been welcome in the Royal Box yesterday was the Duchess of York, who turned up as theguest of a sports promoter. Other celebrities included Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, Hollywood's unlikeliest couple, recently seen canoodling on a Spanish island.

As spectators dug in for an indefinite wait, they steeled themselves for a nightmare ordeal: Sir Cliff Richard. In 1996 he led fans in a toe- curling singalong during a rain break on Centre Court. "That's our biggest fear," said David Stoneball, 21, of Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. "We don't mind sitting around waiting for play, but the moment we see Cliff, we're off."

Yesterday, Sir Cliff sought to calm anxiety about a possible replay. Asked if he planned to break into song again, he replied: "It was a one- off, spur-of-the-moment thing. I don't think I'll ever do it again."

Tennis, pages 29 and 30

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