That was before Tim Henman came along and the distant days of Fred Perry seemed less a one-off age after all. A quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon is not to be disparaged; a medal at the Olympics even less so.
Yesterday, amid the magnificent tree-lined scenery of Stone Mountain Park, 20 miles outside Atlanta, Henman and Neil Broad beat Marc Goellner and David Prinosil, of Germany, 3-6, 6-3, 10-8 in a match lasting one hour and 55 minutes and made sure of playing for either the silver or the gold tomorrow against the No 1 seeds, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde of Australia. With calls for an inquiry into Britain's under-achievement at Atlanta, that ought to be worth a chapter on its own.
To put it into a historical perspective, the last time Britain got a tennis gold was in 1920 when Noel Turnbull and Maxwell Woosnam won the men's doubles while Kitty McKane and Winifred McNair were the women's doubles champions. A silver and two bronzes followed four years later but notwithstanding the sport's withdrawal from the Games for much of the intervening 72 years it has been a long wait.
Yesterday's semi-final was a contest that swayed from one side of the net to the other, resting first with the Germans before settling on the British only after a desperately close final set.
"I'm sure all this helps British tennis," Henman said, referring to both his run at Wimbledon and here. "I'm sure before the event we wouldn't have expected to get a medal, but having said that, we believed in our ability. Now we have to concentrate on the final."
Broad hails from Cape Town, but if he has a dubious claim to be British, the Germans could hardly start pointing fingers as Goellner was born in Brazil and Prinosil in the Czech Republic. Despite their disparate origins it was the Germans who are the more experienced team, having won two ATP doubles titles together while Broad and Henman's partnership is at an embryonic stage.
It looked it at the beginning. Throughout the match the two Britons consulted each other before each point and the gist of Broad's comments in the first game should have gone on the lines of: "Tell you what Tim, as a novelty why don't you serve the ball in?"
Two double-faults cost Henman the first serve and with the weight of a break against them, Britain tumbled lamely in the first set, losing it in 28 minutes.
The momentum was in one direction and it appeared that it would carry the Germans all the way when Broad double-faulted in the first game of the second set to give Germany two break points. It proved to be the turning point, however, Britain taking that game and the next to establish a permanent grip on the set.
The deciding set was a mini epic of its own. Henman, who lost only five points on serve after his poverty stricken start, and Goellner, whose serves were whistling down at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, were the strong men, Broad and Prinosil potential sources of weakness.
Or so it seemed. At 8-8, Goellner, all brooding power, suddenly wilted. His first serve could not find the range and Henman and Broad pounced, breaking to 30.
All that was required was for Broad to hold his serve and at 30-30 that was a considerable doubt. Two aces, his fourth and fifth of the match, settled a famous victory, however.
"It was fine serving to stay in the match," Broad said. "But when we broke, at the change-over I was shaking - it was all I could do to serve, but somehow we managed to come through."
Woodbridge and Woodforde beat the Dutch pair, Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis, in another titanic battle, finally coming through 6-2, 5-7, 18-16 after saving two match points.Reuse content