Tennis: Wilkinson driven on to success: Briton brings down one of the grass-court game's power brokers with a meritorious victory at Queen's Club while a former champion departs

FORGET Gazza and Gooch. We can always fall back on tennis when the nation's sport is in need of inspiration. Well, at least the earth moved a little for the most derided British game yesterday.

Chris Wilkinson, Southampton's finest, was on Court One applying the finishing touches to a famous victory against Goran Ivanisevic, last year's Wimbledon finalist, even as spectators were filing into the Centre Court to spend a baking afternoon watching Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.

A second plus for a nation accustomed to being nonplussed came on Court Two, where Glasgow's Ross Matheson, a qualifier ranked No 563 in the world, defeated the Swiss Jakob Hlasek, whose CV includes wins against Lendl and Andre Agassi at the Masters in 1988 and an appearance in last year's Davis Cup final.

Wilkinson, last seen five weeks ago dragging his racket bag off a clay court in Budapest after losing two singles rubbers on his Davis Cup debut, caught Ivanisevic on one of those days when his mind is not synchronised with the speed of his serve.

The Croat was obviously affected by the death of his friend, Drazen Petrovic, the basketball player, in a car crash near Munich the previous evening. 'I was trying not to think of it, but it's a terrible thing,' he said. At the same time, he gave Wilkinson credit. 'He played well. He believed he could win, and he did win.'

Last year, Ivanisevic hit more than 1,000 aces, 206 of them at Wimbledon and 37 in the final, which he narrowly lost to Agassi in five sets. Wilkinson, a wild card entry in the Stella Artois Championships, coped with the fourth-seed's power yesterday to advance to the third round, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in 81 minutes.

Confidence was not high on either side of the net. Ivanisevic played so poorly against Jim Courier in the Italian Open final last month that he said he would struggle on the women's tour. Wilkinson was so tenative at the start of his first round match here against the American, Jared Palmer, that he said his mother would have beaten him in the first set.

Wilkinson had the edge when it mattered. After winning the opening set in 24 minutes, he caused home support concern when losing his serve in the eight game of the second set, but this was the only occasion Ivan- isevic was able to crack his resolve.

The lack of concentration was apparent when he allowed himself to be distracted by people waiting for the action to start on the Centre Court. He lobbed the ball over the stand and put a finger to his lips, requesting silence. His mood did not improve when he netted a backhand after Wilkinson had fallen on his backside in the opening game of the final set. Wilkinson broke for 3-1 and was able to hold his nerve.

Asked what thoughts had gone through his mind when he awoke yesterday, Wilkinson said: 'Will I get in the car on time.' He was only half- joking. 'From the very first game I felt right,' he said. 'I stayed back on his first serve, and every time he had a second serve I tried to get a play on it. I made a lot of returns at his feet. It is difficult at 6ft 7in to bend down there.'

Britain do not score often on a tennis court, but the few successes tend to be spectacular. Jeremy Bates defeated Michael Chang on the way to the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, and Nick Brown beat Ivanisevic in the second round in 1991. Had this inspired Wilkinson? 'No, that didn't go through my mind. I thought if Agassi could beat him, I could.'

Matheson, 23, the same age as Wilkinson, attended Millfield School and then joined the American collegiate tennis system, combining training and playing with the study of economics. He showed admirable resilience in defeating Hlasek, the 13th seed, 6-3, 7-6, and said that a straight sets defeat by John McEnroe at the Scottish Open when he was 18 had taught him not to worry about the reputation of opponents.

The Scot, whose burr has traces of Oklahoma and Arizona, was 2-5 in the second set but recovered to win the tie break, 7-4. On the final shot, Hlasek hit a forehand long with Matheson on his knees.

Lendl did not stay long, continuing a saddening habit of losing his opening matches. It has happened at the Australian, Italian and French Opens. Yesterday he was defeated, 6-2, 7-6 (13-11 in the tie-break) by Byron Black, of Zimbabwe, ranked No 116.

STEFFI GRAF'S foot injury was discovered yesterday to be an inflammation rather than a fracture, increasing her chances of defending her Wimbledon title. But Sergi Bruguera, the French Open champion, has withdrawn from the tournament, complaining of exhaustion.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 37

(Photograph omitted)

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