Tennis: Week to stir ghosts of past dramas

`The tournament no longer seemed to belong to foreigners. There appeared to be more British players about the place'
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The Independent Online
A WEEK ago Wimbledon stood empty. On the Centre Court, the grass had been cut in a neat cross-hatched pattern, the royal box was discreetly covered by a dark green tarpaulin, the aisles had been swept clean. This was how the place looked when Arthur Ashe, the year before his death, paid a visit to show his small daughter the scene of his greatest triumph. At four years old, she could not be expected to understand properly the nature of her father's achievement when he soft-balled Jimmy Connors to distraction and defeat on that green rectangle one sunlit day in 1975. But Ashe knew he was dying, and he wanted to show it to her. As for himself, he said later, what he thought about when he walked around the precincts of Wimbledon was not just his own day of glory, or even those of the other great champions of the past. He thought, too, about all the people who had gone there and lost.

Empty stadiums are full of ghosts. The spirits of the people we have seen for ourselves, and those whose deeds come down to us as legend. The Centre Court teems with them. And when it is empty, they fight for space. Those of Ken Rosewall, 5ft 7in and 10 stone, losing four finals on either side of his long exile, and of Martina Navratilova, beating every significant player of her era as she racked up her nine singles titles. Of Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Passarell, and the astonishing first-round match that lasted five hours and 20 minutes - 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 - exactly 30 years ago this week. Of Maria Bueno, coming back to take her third title by defeating the formidable Margaret Court 25 years ago. Of another marathon, the 34-point tie-break that occupied a spine-tingling 20 minutes in the lives of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in the 1980 final, when Borg won his fifth title in a row. A week ago, these and other Wimbledon ghosts were preparing to be joined by a new generation of ghosts.

It certainly added one to its collection yesterday. When Pete Sampras of Orlando, Florida, the world No 1 and the five-time champion, met Danny Sapsford of Weybridge, Surrey, the world No 595 and a man on the brink of retirement, at Wimbledon, we saw such stuff as dreams are made on. Sampras opened the match with a 129mph clean ace that had Sapsford practically cartwheeling into the No 1 Court scenery. The packed grandstands sighed, fearing a humiliation. For a minute, it looked like a contest between Superman and Mr Magoo. But Sapsford rallied, threw himself into the match, won three games in the first set and four in the second, in which he earned the greatest applause of the afternoon for a gymnastic winning volley, and finally lost 7-5 in the final set, walking off court to a standing ovation, with honour not just intact but polished to a shine that will last a lifetime.

That match did not, perhaps, represent the apogee of tennis in a technical or tactical sense. "I wish I could have hit a few more good shots on the big points," Sapsford said afterwards, "to experience the roar of the crowd a few more times." But he wrote another page in the story of what has been shaping up as the best first week in recent memory, five days of tennis full of drama and incident, in which Wimbledon has lived up - as it has not always done - to its own extravagant myth.

Maybe it helped that the tournament no longer seemed to belong to foreigners. There appeared to be more British players about the place, and even if some of them failed to meet the challenge of the first round, others either performed up to their known abilities or, in Sapsford's case, above them. The simultaneous rise of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski may be starting to have the widely predicted effect of convincing British tennis players that they can be something more than mere cannon fodder for assorted Americans, Swedes and East Europeans. It's too late for Sapsford to alter his own destiny as a player, of course, but younger players may have watched his contest with Sampras and come to the conclusion that if an out-of- condition 30-year-old can meet the No 1 seed in the third round and give a respectable account of himself, then perhaps they can do even better.

More than any other ball game, tennis is played in the mind. Conviction and confidence are beyond price. Jelena Dokic, 16 years old, ranked 129 in the world, was the living proof of that this week when she took advantage of a disoriented and uncertain Martina Hingis and gave us some other reason, besides the antics of her father, to remember her name. Dokic looked like a schoolgirl but she hit deep and talked straight, just like an Aussie. She even passed the follow-up test, albeit not without an understandable wobble against the vastly more experienced Katarina Studenikova. It would be nice if her father were enjoying his stay in London, too, and further progress might improve his mood. If she can get past Anne Kremer, Luxembourg's favourite sports personality, the prospect of a meeting with Mary Pierce ought to have them queueing all the way to Wandsworth.

If it was a reasonable week for Britain, it was the best week for Australia since, oh, last week. Steve Waugh and Shane Warne would have been proud not just of Dokic but of Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt, too. Rafter, who is probably a bit of a dark horse with the general audience despite his No 2 seeding, prevailed in an enthralling twilight battle with his doubles partner, Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden, on Thursday night - the sort of match that can establish a player's character in the public's mind. The 18-year-old Hewitt, who gave up Australian Rules football to devote himself to tennis, turned out to be a sort of Brad Pitt with a racket, attracting hordes of excitable fans wherever he went. His third-round meeting with Boris Becker today promises thunder and lightning, and perhaps the final exit of a great champion.

Becker's match with his compatriot Nicolas Kiefer provided another episode of high dramatic tension. Kiefer's puzzlement at coming to London to play a fellow German and finding himself facing a local favourite was among the week's sadder sights, and it will probably take a couple of wins in SW19 before he can begin to entertain fond thoughts about the place.

With his old-fashioned boom-boom style, Becker is a reminder of the way that different styles can co-exist and compete with each other on grass today. The weather has been fine, the courts are hard, and the ball is bouncing in a way that pleases a natural-born baseliner like Andre Agassi, whose progress towards the second week made few headlines but was impressively efficient. And just as the world's great clay courts, such as Roland-Garros and the Foro Italico, have been speeded up in order to do away with the metronomic 50-stroke rallies that characterised the days of Mats Wilander and Guillermo Vilas, so the grass seems to have slowed down slightly, allowing touch to play a fuller part.

Or perhaps the reason is simply that the players have speeded up, and can move around the court fast enough to give themselves time to employ both power and delicacy. When Henman gets to the net, for instance, we are sometimes given a demonstration of volleying with soft-hands and oblique angles that would raise a smile of recognition from John McEnroe, the one-time master of the art. Henman's lapses of concentration in his early- round matches against Arnaud di Pasquale and Sebastian Grosjean may turn out to have been a blessing in disguise, presenting him with a lesson that ought to help him avoid a repetition in the tougher confrontations to come.

If there is no Manuel Santana or a Miloslav Mecir in today's field, no artist with cobwebs for racket strings, there is plenty of compensation in the existence of players such as Andre Agassi and Venus Williams, whose unorthodoxy offers a rich contrast with many of their opponents. Agassi's hungry eye and Williams's astonishing athleticism make them a wonderful spectacle, and even more so on grass, where they are presented with an unfamiliar set of problems and come up with imaginative solutions.

As did Agassi in 1992, Williams seems likely to find the answer to the ultimate question one day - and her appointment on Monday with Anna Kournikova, the tournament's sweetheart, will give a powerful kick-off to the second week, with the winner scheduled to meet Steffi Graf for a place in the semi-final. And what price the winner of that one finding herself confronted on the Centre Court a week today by a 16-year-old Australian qualifier who is sharing a room down the road with her parents in a pounds 50-a-night B&B? A ridiculous idea, of course, but Danny Sapsford might not want to bet against it.

And all this has been watched by enthusiastic crowds of unprecedented size. Records of one kind or another have been set every day, with Thursday's total of 40,312 setting a new figure for a single day's attendance at a tournament that traces its history all the way back to 1877. The aisles between the outside courts have been jam-packed, and the unreserved grandstands have been full long before the start of play. Fuelled by the sunshine and the success of the British men, the mood has been euphoric enough to make even the price of a punnet of strawberries seem reasonable.

Everywhere you looked this week, something interesting was happening. Maybe it was Jim Courier, who still seems determined to win this thing one day, taking a gruelling four hours and 20 minutes to dig himself out of a hole against Sjeng Schalken. Or Graf waiting for the ferocity of Mariaan de Swardt's assault to blow itself out before mounting her counter- attack. And if that sort of thing isn't enough, well, on some distant court today a 64-year-old man with a sublime backhand will be making his first appearance in this year's tournament. Still 5ft 7in, still around 10 stone, the 64-year-old Ken Rosewall will be giving away almost two decades to some of his opponents in the veterans' doubles. Sometimes the ghosts, too, want to join the fun.