A week to go bananas over a new hero

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The Independent Online
IT was bad enough for Jeremy Bates when he was Britain's golden boy - all that expectation on his shoulders every Wimbledon, most of it coming from the BBC. But what must it be like for him now, now Greg Rusedski's in town? What must it be like to be the former golden boy, with no expectation and none of it coming from the BBC?

An alert was sounded at precisely 18.31 on the opening Monday, and off we went to Court 302, or whatever dusty backlot Bates had been relegated to, where Mark Cox tried to make himself heard above the wailing sirens. Bates was in trouble against Derrick Rostagno. Rostagno sounds like he might be one of the Three Musketeers. Bates doesn't. "I don't think I've ever seen Jeremy mishit so many returns of serve," said Cox, sombrely. "He's looked frankly slow and lethargic throughout the match." Forgotten already, Bates's magnificent Wimbledons of yore: forgotten his commanding performances in advancing to the quarter-finals of the Rymans Stationery Classic down at Torbay last year. How fickle this game is.

So, arise Greg Rusedski, former Canadian, the new Jeremy Bates. One has to have one's suspicions about Rusedski. A tennis player actively electing to become British is a bit like a comedian emigrating to Germany. How un-British is Rusedski? Well, put it this way: it's Sunday and he's still in the tournament.

Perhaps Rusedski has been having a little of whatever Pete Sampras is drinking. Sampras has been refreshing himself between games from a clear plastic bottle containing something pink. Is this meths? It would explain much: the fixity of his facial muscles, the sozzled walk and the general sense that there is no getting through to him.

Michael Chang, too, opted last week for pink drinks and was also conspicuously doing bananas. "Like a lot of big servers," explained John Barrett, "he eats bananas between games." This was Monday and everyone in the commentary box agreed we were looking this year at "a different Chang" - not the baseline boy of old but a newly matured, banana-powered serve-and-volley merchant. On Thursday, Chang played like someone who had just force-fed himself six packets of Worcester Sauce flavour Wheat Crunchies. He was dumped out in three sets. So much for bananas.

To get the most out of Wimbledon, you really need to set the hours aside for the live coverage. (This is not just because you then get Des Lynam, though that's one good reason. This was Des, the human equivalent of a draft of barley water, sifting through a few results and coming across the name Chris Wilkinson: "Now, he had a good game against Agassi two years ago, or was it three, I don't know, time passes you by, but he's done well today.") True, every night Sue Barker offers us a digest in Today at Wimbledon (BBC 2), but this is a programme with an inherent drama problem. The disappointing thing about tennis highlights is that you're given more than an inkling of the game's outcome. Thus, when Sue says, "We join the game in the second set, with Steffi leading one set to love and five games to two and serving for the match at 40-love," you somehow intuit that you're not about to witness a major upset.

Of course, some argue that tennis offers less drama in any case, that it's become a dull slugfest, all serve and return. This is to have scant regard for the arts of serving and returning, which are pretty impressive sights in themselves. But if tennis really did have an entertainment problem, then looking at the game on a television screen would bring it sharply into focus. This is the perfect context in which to judge whether the Nintendo simulation has actually overtaken the real thing for thrills and spills, leaving it looking like one of those prototype TV games, in which two sticks went up and down the sides of the screen in pursuit of a sliding spot.

One week into Wimbledon, it's a pleasure to report that this is not yet the case. Agassi might look like he's just clocked off at the baking factory, but watching him pound Patrick McEnroe this week, you could hardly doubt that rumours of tennis's death are exaggerated.

After three intensive weeks in a warehouse with Prince Edward, I think I'm finally getting a grip on some of the arcane rules of Real Tennis (C4, Saturday), which has about as much in common with the game we see at Wimbledon as grand prix racing has with dressage. Using imaginative 3D-style computer images and the Prince's own careful voice-overs, the programmes have, it seems to me, shone a bright torch on this tricky and, some would say, inaccessible sport.

As I understand it, the important thing is that the server retains the cutlass as long as the ball makes contact with the armoire and when spades are trumps. Galleys are out of bounds during any tryst. Bishops can swing either way, but in the event of a cathedral, go directly to jail, do not pass Go and do not collect pounds 200. There's a 50-point bonus if you use all your letters. And the last one back is a sissy.

For me, a vagueness still attaches to the scoring system, but 10 more programmes and I should be up to speed. Unfortunately, the series has just ended.

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