Tennis: The Surbiton road to Wimbledon

Andrew Baker sees the leading players warming up for the warm- up

This week's Stella Artois tournament in west London has become the traditional warm-up for Wimbledon and seems to attract a more star- studded cast of players year by year. But while the scaffolders were busy at Queen's Club last week one or two of the big names decided that they needed a warm-up for the warm-up and headed for the less thickly marqueed surroundings of the Surrey Tennis and Squash Club in Surbiton.

Throughout last week the site had hosted the Surrey Grass Court Championships, a magnet for the lesser lights of the tennis scene, those unlikely to be delayed by the latter stages of the French Open in Paris. But on finals day the Surrey title had been relegated to a sideshow by the exhibition matches, and when the winner of the men's singles, Jason Stoltenberg of Australia, loped back to the locker-room toting his rackets bag, a magnum of champagne and a modest cheque, he brushed unnoticed through crowds of camera-laden fans seeking a glimpse of the exhibitionists.

These were, in ascending order of desirability according to the keenness of autograph hunters, Byron Black, Jonas Bjorkman, Michael Chang, Greg Rusedski, Boris Becker and Tim Henman.

Berrylands Road, Surbiton, is not, the residents would surely agree, synonymous with hysterical fan activity. Far from threatening the tyranny of the tow-away truck or the clamp, self-proclaimed "polite notices" insist that parking in the environs is for residents only.

The All-England Lawn Tennis Club like to say that their tournament offers "tennis in an English garden"; the Surrey venue might be said to provide "tennis in an English front garden", being sited on a narrow strip of lawn before a row of mock-Georgian semis. The atmosphere of gentility is confirmed in the Portaloos: wooden seats.

The older locals were a little taken aback by the accoutrements of modern tennis, one official expressing astonishment at the Imelda Marcos-scale assortment of tennis shoes in the boot of Stoltenberg's car.

But the local youth were more tuned in. Asked by a breathless hack where Becker had parked his car, an earringed posse first commented that if the vehicle was to be photographed they would require payment for identifying it, then suggested that the vehicle could most likely be distinguished, at this juncture, by its lack of wheels and a stereo system.

Just joshing: they abandoned their bottled form of Stella Artois warm- up to watch the real thing, as Henman, preceded by a loud security man making the most of the highlight of a dull week, made his way on to Court B to face Byron Black.

For the top players, exhibition matches are no-lose contests. Aside from commercial considerations (unlikely to have been a factor at such a modest event) there is the matter of invaluable court practice on unfamiliar grass before Wimbledon and a chance to shake off a little rust before the Stella if, like Henman, you had taken an early dive out of the French Open and were a little short of match practice. If you win, you say that it proves you are on top of your form. If you lose, you say it was just the work-out you needed.

Henman lost, failing to capitalise on six set points after leading 5- 2 to forfeit the first set on a tie-break. He perked up in the second, perhaps refreshed by some persistent patriotic drizzle, but capitulated rather tamely in the third to go down to the Zimbabwean 7-6 3-6 6-3.

Meanwhile, on the next-door court, Rusedski was on fine form, tuning up his titanic serve and defeating the world No 2, Chang, 7-6 4-6 6-1. There was some cabaret: Henman and Rusedski bantered about the rain, and Chang gave the British No 1 a friendly pat on the way back from a fruitless chase after a Rusedski pass.

Fun for the damp crowd of 600 or so, who were disappointed when Becker's match with Bjorkman was interrupted by more persistent rain, and, by all accounts, a useful exercise for the players. Henman, having lost, reckoned that he would be better for the run-out. "I think it was irrelevant winning or losing," he said. "It was a good couple of hours on grass. I was just happy to play in a match situation."

Rusedski, having won, declared that he was on a roll. "The way I started the year I lost my first two games in Australia and then I had my good run up to the final in San Jose," he said. "I lost my first two matches in Rome and Paris so hopefully I can have the same run as I did afterwards." But now the real warm-up begins.

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