Silence and disquiet on court : ALMANACK

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THE KEY difference between the Newcastle Ladies' tennis tournament and Wimbledon was not the quality of play, which was excellent, or the umpiring, which was unimpeachable, or the surroundings, which were most civilised. It was the ballboys and ballgirls, who were comic in the extreme. They were smart and keen, like their counterparts in London SW19 - but they just hadn't grasped the concept of roundness. After all, it's not often you see a ballboy bounce a ball to a player on Centre Court and miss the target altogether.

The Newcastle event was a Challenger tournament, with a prize fund of $25,000. This is one up from Satellite tournaments, which offer $10,000, but some way from the million- dollar level of major championships. "These events are for the stars of the future," Nick Imison of the Lawn Tennis Association explained. "They are for young, up-and-coming players hoping to break into the Top 100."

Such players require dedication and determination, and an aptitude for frugality. First-round losers at the Newcastle tournament will not cover their expenses for the week - even at £18 a night to share a room with two other players at the Hospitality Inn, Jesmond. But coaches, players and officials reckoned that this was one of the better tournaments. Decent accommodation, courtesy bus, free meals - even a trip to "Laser Quest" at the MetroCentre. It was enough to send some of the veterans into "Kids these days don't know the meaning of hardship" monologues.

But it was still a very peculiar scene. The Castle Farm tennis centre is a splendid venue, with six smart indoor courts and a swanky restaurant and bar, but as an arena for an international-ranking tennis tournament it was a bit, well, empty. There aren't many singles matches at Wimbledon where the players outnumber the spectators. This is not to say that the matches lacked passion. Svetlana Krivencheva of Bulgaria was ejected after walloping a ball in the direction of a line judge. Sandra Kleinova, the Czech teenager, burst into tears regularly en route to the semi-finals.

In the qualifying matches for the doubles tournament at Newcastle, the players even do without umpires, calling their own lines. Perhaps understandably, this sometimes leads to minor disputes. We watched Lizzie Jelfs of Britain and her South African partner Nannie de Villiers play Lubomira Bacheva of Bulgaria and Michaela Siebold of Germany. All very amicable - until Bacheva and Siebold held match-point, and there was a spat over a line- call. The four players stood there marooned in the vast hall, hands on hips, gesturing here and there, quietly but stubbornly stating their grievances. "Start again!" yelled some watching players waiting to get on court. Eventually an official was summoned, who (as usual, apparently) ordered the point to be replayed. Jelfs and De Villiers were defeated.

It was a rare setback for Lizzie Jelfs. The 18-year-old from Banbury, ranked 788 in the world, had an extraordinary week in Newcastle. Given a wild card entry into the tournament, she beat two players ranked more than 500 places higher than her to earn a place in the quarter-finals, where she would play her doubles adversary Siebold - ranked precisely 513 places above her. Was she worried about taking on another highly rated opponent? "Oh no," she said. "They take one look at my ranking and it gives them a false sense of security."

The organisers had installed a grandstand overnight ready for the quarter- finals. But when Jelfs and Siebold came on to the court there were only two people sitting in it. Another six sat with us in a sort of gallery where the Royal Box would have been if we'd been at Wimbledon.

The lack of spectators didn't seem to trouble the players. Siebold grunted and thrashed her way to a 4-2 first-set lead with her powerful serve and forehand. Jelfs, looking a little ungainly, broke back for 4-3 as the grandstand filled up. There were now nine people in it. Siebold took the first set 6-3, but appeared increasingly chippy. She glared at the ballpersons. She seemed to regard even such a minute crowd as unpleasantly partisan (we weren't). The world, she seemed to feel, had it in for her. "Oh, ich liebe tennis," she exclaimed at one point, in tones of extreme irony.

Jelfs, serene and focused, took advantage of all this existential angst to canter through the second set 6-1. Siebold grumbled some more. "What am I doing here?" seemed to be the general thrust of her thinking. On the adjacent court, the temperamental Kleinova knelt for a quick weep. "She does this everywhere," a spectator confided.

Jelfs served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, and was comprehensively broken. But just when it looked like she had mastered the British knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, she rallied to take the match on the tie-break 7-4. Afterwards Britain's finest was mobbed by the press (us). "Lizzie! Lizzie! A quick quote?" "Just a minute," she said, "I've got to get my lunch ticket." Ah, the glamour of it all.

DISAPPOINTMENT for Uxbridge College's football team. They won their first eight matches in the catchily titled Southern England Students Sports Association Division Five (West) 12-0, 5-1, 13-0, 13-0 (not again!), 10- 0, 10-1, 8-0 and 6-0. But then they met Westminster University, who had the cheek to score in the last couple of minutes to secure a 1-1 draw. "It's a bit of a sudden shock to the system," Tim Wood, the Uxbridge manager, conceded.