Rackets: Silence greets rackets king

Conrad Leach talks to a champion in his 10th year on top of the world
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The Independent Online
AT THE BBC's Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony last month, an event designed to celebrate the best in British sport, there was one absentee who possibly had more of a right to be there than many of the black-tie brigade. A world champion for 10 years, who plays the first leg of his tit-le defence in Chicago next Saturday, the No 1 of rackets, James Male, was simply not on the list, like some rejected New Year's Eve partygoer.

Someone at the BBC must have an aversion to Male or the game of rackets, for he applied to appear on Question of Sport in 1995 having just defended his title against Neil Smith, his challenger again next week, only to receive a curt reply stating the programme featured only sportsmen or women at the top of their profession.

That is some snub for a man who chases a golf-ball-sized projectile which flies at speeds up to and over 130mph around an area more than twice the size of a squash court and has retained his pre-eminence for so long. And it is difficult to see what Male, a former banker in a game that, ironically, started out 200 years ago against the courtyard walls of debtors' prisons, can do to make himself any better.

Male, 34, can already claim with some justification to be rackets' most successful ever exponent, being the only person to have won the world championship four consecutive times in its two-legged trans-Atlantic format, not to mention a mighty haul of 38 other singles and doubles titles.

But Male, an amateur, albeit a highly serious one in a sport where professionals are in the minority, such are the small rewards on offer, has tried his luck and coordination at real tennis as well as, more notably, baseball. Spotted by the owner of the Atlanta Braves as he defended his title in Philadelphia in 1993 against Smith, he travelled to Georgia the following year for a trial as a batter. The exercise lasted more than three months, but his ambitions were thwarted by the players' strike that was brewing at the time.

The defence in 1993 was the closest Male had come to cashing in his chips as champion when his unique ambidextrous style, that sees him serve with different hands and play double-handed forehands and backhands, was almost undone by the taller, languid left-handed Smith.

Playing the best-of-seven sets, Smith won 4-2 in America, leaving him needing three sets in the second leg at Queen's Club, London, to claim Male's crown. Smith won the first set only for the resilient Male to haul him back and win 6-5 on aggregate in the closest final for 21 years.

Smith moved from England to America nearly 10 years ago and now has his sights firmly set on finally avenging that defeat, knowing that at the age of 35 he is running out of time to challenge Male. "It is something that would be great to finish your career on, no doubt about it," Smith said.

Whether it would get him on to the BBC, though, is a different matter entirely.