Tennis: Wilkinson happy in the shade

Nick Callow discovers what life is like for Britons who are not Tim or Greg
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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN and Greg Rusedski have created such a divide in British tennis that the country's number three-ranked player did not expect to attract much attention going into Wimbledon. That player, who came before both the Henman and the Greg, is Chris Wilkinson.

Had he chosen football ahead of tennis, a genuine option as a teenager on his beloved Southampton's books, Wilkinson would be due a testimonial in this, his 10th year on the professional circuit. As it is, he will be grinding away on an outside court at Wimbledon this week, giving his all to win a first-round tie against a qualifier.

British tennis has never had such a high profile thanks to the Tim and Greg effect, but they have cornered the market rather than opened it up for the others. Wilkinson, who initially quit representing Britain in Davis Cup tennis in protest at Rusedski's seemingly hasty switch in nationality, accepts the situation now, but he's not stupid.

"For me, personally, they don't inspire me," he says without envy. "You get to an an age, I'm 28, when you've got your shots, you've got your game and whatever they do is not going to make any difference to me. I think they can help the future of British tennis and their profile is already doing that by getting more kids out on the courts. They have also set higher standards to aim for.

"It's just a shame for the other players because they don't get a look in now. Tim and Greg deserve it because they're brilliant players and the aim, therefore, is to get better, so we do get a look in. Winning, losing and my own personal performances are all that matter to me - no one can argue with a result."

Wilkinson has reached the third round of Wimbledon three times and is ranked 157 in the world. That may not sound much but it genuinely represents gallons of talent, years of sweat and sacrifice, and is a position from which he can earn a comfortable living, travel the globe and meet interesting people.

"I'm fit and getting ready for the big couple of weeks ahead. It has been a frustrating build-up to Wimbledon because the rain has made it difficult to get on to the courts, but I guess everyone is in the same position. It's what you have to put up with living in this country.

"I've had a fairly typical year in that I've maintained my standards, enjoyed a few good results and now we are in the grass court season where it is possible to earn a few more pounds and a few more points. Yes, this is the most important time of the year for me and Wimbledon is the most important tournament."

The leap made by Britain's premiership one and two has left Wilkinson and the chasing pack well behind in many aspects, but he disagrees that the national No 3 spot is the equivalent to being on top of the First Division.

"Obviously Tim and Greg are way, way ahead. They are better players as their rankings prove, but I'm still trying my best to close the gap and I don't see the No 3 spot as a separate honour. I have always worked to get into the world top 100. I haven't quite achieved that yet (114 is his highest), but if I canhave a good summer then I might get there soon."

Wilkinson plans to compete in his trademark gutsy style for another four years on the tour. And he already knows that he will have one extra dimension to his life this summer as he is due to become a father for the first time in August.

"It will be fun, not much sleep maybe but, like anything else, I'll get used to it. After football, I would definitely encourage our [he is married to LTA employee Amanda] children to play tennis or any sport. I have met people and seen places I would never have had the opportunity to do outside tennis."

Wilkinson is a nice guy and a winner, whatever the rankings and those other two Brits may lead us to believe.

A world apart: The rest of British

Men

Chris Wilkinson (Rank: British 3. World 157). Thoughtful player for the power era, who will need to draw on experience of three third-round appearances to pass Cedric Pioline, in second round.

Andrew Richardson (4/167). At 24, he has ideal game and frame (6ft 7in) for Wimbledon, unlike the higher ranked clay-court experts around him in draw.

Mark Petchey (5/199). A tough draw faces the Essex man, 27, who reached the third round last year. Good on grass, has he got the class?

Danny Sapsford (6/249). A courageous player better suited to slower courts. Third seed Petr Korda will end his hopes in round two, if he survives round one.

Martin Lee (8/341). Former world No. 1 junior, 20, who has the game to win a couple of rounds, but will need to show mental strength to match his ability.

Barry Cowan (7/294). A Liverpool fan, 23, in his best year as a professional. German Hendrik Dreekmann is a formidable but beatable first-round opponent. Richard Krajicek, a potential third-round adversary, is not.

Women

Sam Smith (1/112). An intelligent player whose natural ability is not reflected by her world ranking. Due a good run and deserves one too.

Karen Cross (2/138). Genuine prospect, 24, who last year became the first British woman qualifier to reach third round for 21 years where she held a match point against Iva Majoli.

Lorna Woodrofe (3/148). Out of the Alan Jones (Jo Durie's coach) stable who has rarely been ranked higher and who will rarely have a better chance to impress at Wimbledon.

Julie Pullin (4/175). Has fared better in doubles and may be reaching her limit in singles, but, at 22, is capable moving up and has a beatable first-round opponent.

Jo Ward (5/195). Climbing every year to current all-time high and has the game to cause a stir - if she can get past the British No.2 in the first round.

Louise Latimer (7/251). A 20-year-old translating junior prowess into senior success - has jumped 800 places up the rankings in three years. Nice game, shame about her draw.

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