Tennis: Wilkinson's sword slays the baby-eating monster

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The Independent Online
There were babies around Court No 6 yesterday and they were screaming. It was just like the McEnroe days.

For a match between a new all-American boy and a seasoned Zimbabwean there was unusual interest. But then the winner of this contest would go on to a far grander coliseum and an encounter in the third round with the prince of this parish, Tim Henman.

This was blond v Black, streaked blond at that in the hair of Jan-Michael Gambill of the United States. He is 21, 6ft 2in and possessed of the look and physique of someone who should be crashing into California surf. He is also named after the actor Jan-Michael Vincent, which just shows that his mother has tastes for other than Jean-Luc Godard's work.

In the other corner was the wiry Byron Black, fighting out of Harare, and at 30 next year, a veritable Methuselah of the circuit.

The stats suggested that Blackie should win. He has been the 22nd-best player in the world, even if he is now down at 34. The boy from Spokane, Washington, is at 60 in the charts and rising. He is meant to be America's great new hope, which, in expectancy terms, is worth an anvil in each sock.

Both are predominantly baseliners and both predominantly two-handed on either wing. This meant that during the long rallies yesterday it seemed as if our players had been the victim of a prankster with a pot of glue in the locker room.

The boys have already endured two close matches this year, which means Black has got used to playing the fairground duck. Gambill has a big first serve, a big second serve and, almost inevitably, a big double-fault count.

Black's cause may have been aided by his opponent's fatigue. Gambill had needed three days, five sets and a great deal of nervous energy to overcome Sjeng Schalken in the first round and, in the end, that was too much. He departed 7-5, 6-4, 7-5.

There were those hoping that tiredness would have a similar effect on events at Court No 1. This was where Chris Wilkinson, of Southampton and Blighty, was taking on the gargantuan Swiss, Marc Rosset.

Rosset had finished his first-round match only at 8.00pm the previous night with a five-setter to put out last year's runner-up, Cedric Pioline, 13-11 in the fifth.

While our Chris was dozing among handmaidens wafting away with peacock feathers, it might have been an idea if the All England committee had put Rosset to even further work. An evening shift behind the bar at the Pitcher & Piano in Wimbledon village might have done the trick, followed by a morning paper round.

It might also have been an idea to return to the pre-1975 days and make the players stand at the change-overs. But Rosset really did need his sit-downs as he brought into this game a nagging back injury.

While Rusedski's blunderbuss and the rapier Henman have been prominent at recent Wimbledons, there have also been good moments for the Wilkinson sword. A ranking of 114 may be the highest he has ever achieved, but Wilkinson has always operated in flurries and they tend to come in SW19. He has reached the third round in 1993, 1994 and 1995.

"It's nice for me [at Wimbledon] because I can stay at home and I know what to expect now," he said after his first victory. "It's very easy for me to get up for it."

Rosset was the only Swiss gold medallist at the Barcelona Olympics and has finished in the world top 35 for each of the last six years. The credentials looked overpoweringly in his favour, as did the differences between the two combatants on court. Marc Rosset would look like a Smurf if it wasn't for the fact he is 6ft 7in tall. He may be the only tennis player in history who has never been lobbed.

Wilkinson was hardly a terrifying vision at his side. He had co-ordinating white legs to go with his outfit, limbs about as chunky as cotton thread.

The match opened like a contest between a fly and a swatter, and while Wilkinson looked as if he might be able to buzz around and survive for a while, it seemed he could never win. Rosset swaggered like a man who had just eaten a couple of babies for a snack before he came out and almost put one smash through the canvas.

The lumbering, though, soon became less significant than Rosset's lumbar. The giant became as manoeuvrable as the beanstalk and Wilkinson started winning games. And then he started winning sets.

He won the first set 6-4, the second by the same margin, and, when a crosscourt forehand flashed past Rosset in the third-set tie-break, the match itself. The swatter had been snapped.