Tennis: Summer of two seasons

Split personalities of British tennis went on show last week.
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The Independent Online
LAST Wednesday the Lawn Tennis Association hosted a jamboree at Queen's Club in west London to celebrate the start of the British tennis season. Tim Henman was there, sporting a minimal bandage on his mending elbow, and Greg Rusedski loomed avuncularly over a supporting cast of racket-wielding schoolchildren. The LTA had asked along Kriss Akabusi and someone called Gladiator Vogue, who are apparently going to be persuading more people to take up the game this summer.

It was all very jolly - too jolly in the case of Akabusi, whose incessant trade-mark cackle made it rather difficult to hear what anyone else was saying. But it was also somewhat misguided, for two contradictory but none the less genuine reasons. These are: (1) The British Tennis Season does not really start until the first of the Wimbledon warm-up grass-court events, which are the only competitions that attract an impressive array of international talent; and (2) The British Tennis Season has been going on for weeks. It's just that no one has noticed.

Even as Henman and Rusedski grinned and posed at Queen's, the lesser lights of British tennis were hard at work in Lee-on-Solent, in Hampshire, at a tournament that was part of the LTA Spring Satellite circuit.

Last summer Luke Milligan, the taxi driver's son from Muswell Hill, in north London, briefly held the nation's tennis fans in thrall as he took on Henman on Wimbledon's packed Centre Court for a place in the last 16. Last Thursday, though, he was grafting away at the bottom rung of the ladder against less well-known opposition, David Roditi of Mexico.

To say the crowd consisted of one man and his dog would be both cliched and inaccurate: it was a woman, in a mauve anorak, brown suede gloves, a fluffy leopardskin hat and sunglasses. The dog had stayed at home in the warm.

There were other spectators (10), but they were all either fellow players or coaches, who occasionally drifted off to watch the other matches on adjacent courts. Two of these also featured briefly celebrated Brits: Danny Sapsford, another star of Wimbledon last year, and Jamie Delgado, who recently attempted without success to uphold national honour in the Davis Cup.

But Milligan's match held this spectator's attention, not for the consistency, concentration and occasional flair of the Briton, all admirably in evidence, but for the bizarre play of his stocky, tanned, hairy opponent.

Roditi was very good at talking to himself - in English, which was a generous gesture to the sparse gallery. But he is not one of nature's listeners. "That's why you have two serves," he reminded himself, having sprayed one wide and another into the net, "so that you can get one in."

In between self-abuse ("David, you're pathetic") and racket abuse, Roditi picked up three games when he could be bothered to concentrate. But Milligan took the first set without over- exertion, and Roditi decided that it was time to direct the blame elsewhere. "It's the frigging wind," he explained, stumping back to his chair.

Milligan was not beyond a few expressions of dissatisfaction himself in the second set, mostly muttered exhortations to "focus", but these were mainly reminders to ignore the increasingly embarrassing play of his opponent. One exchange, more typical of a municipal park than an international tournament, saw Roditi deliver an absurdly short serve, which the startled Milligan could only return with a sort of gentle low lob. Trundling forward with beetle-browed determination, Roditi mashed it into the net.

The final straw for the Mexican was a few drops of rain. At 2-5, he resolutely walloped four of Milligan's serves a long way out of court, packed his bag and strolled off, with an expression that suggested he was thinking "it's the frigging drizzle".

Milligan seemed more exasperated than amused. "It's so hard playing someone like that," he said, having warmed up with a shower. "You never know what you're going to get, and it's easy to get dragged into their mental state. I just had to block it out, and play my game."

But what was Milligan, late of the Centre Court, doing playing such an opponent anyway? "Last year was too up-and-down," he said. "I played too many of the higher-level tournaments, and my ranking is suffering for that now. This year I'm trying to balance things out more, looking for wins and confidence in the minor tournaments before moving up."

He, like Sapsford, Delgado and Andrew Richardson, is pained by the gulf between Britain's top two male players and the rest. But at least this year he will know what to expect in SW19. "I'm glad that I played well in my first Wimbledon," he said. "Now, whatever happens this year won't come as a shock." Unless he meets David Roditi in the final.