Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Wilkinson fails to follow up his breaks

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THE LAST great British Davis Cup team was introduced to the Centre Court yesterday, but the next great British victory was not forthcoming. Although Chris Wilkinson, the man who has spearheaded the renaissance in domestic men's tennis during the last month, cracked Stefan Edberg's composure yesterday, he could not defeat the man.

Wilkinson broke the twice-champion's serve six times yet still lost 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 in 1 hr 57 min. If the Southampton 23-year-old could have crashed his own serve on to the lines with the same facility with which he found them with his returns, another fillip for Britain would have accrued. Instead, on people's Saturday, the Centre Court plaudits went to Fred Perry, Bunny Austin and three others from 1933 to 1936.

'I'm disappointed because I felt I was playing well,' Wilkinson said. 'The best part of his game is his serve and volleying and I was dealing with it. I would have won matches against some people but when you are playing a guy of Edberg's class then you have to be better. It was great going on to Centre Court. You can't buy that experience. I think it's going to help me in the future. It was a tight match and it shows that I shouldn't be scared of anyone.'

Wilkinson was not scared of Edberg but he was intimidated by the occasion. British tennis players do not arrive on the threshold of a place in the last 16 at Wimbledon too many times, and when Wilkinson appeared on court he looked more like a rabbit caught in headlights than the man who had professed two days before that he felt he could beat anyone.

He has a spindly build that looks like it needs an extended course in a weight-training gym and that, with two double faults that surrendered his first service game, gave the impression of a man who had found a depth way beyond his capacity or experience. A man ranked 143 has every reason to feel overawed when confronted by the third best player in the world; Wilkinson, on the greatest day of his careeer, looked as though he would have preferred to be elsewhere.

The appearance was misleading. When Edberg went 3-0 up an embarrassment seemed imminent. Instead Wilkinson, who defeated Goran Ivanisevic at Queen's earlier this month, came back with his strokes blazing. He broke the Swede to love in the seventh game with four thumping returns and levelled at 4-4 despite being 30-0 down on his serve.

That passage of play would set a precedent. Wilkinson could break almost at will and Edberg was not troubled by the serve coming his way either. The ball in the hand is supposed to be the dominant weapon on grass but in this match it was bordering on a liability. Edberg exploited the weakness to take the first set but was shaking his head with dismay in the second when he was broken three times. For a man who has an icy grip on his emotions, this was the equivalent of a full-blown tantrum from the likes of John McEnroe.

'I didn't hit my serve, I was pushing it,' Edberg said, 'and against these guys they are going to hit a lot of balls back. That's his strength, his return, and I didn't get up to hit it. I got into a patch where I didn't feel comfortable.'

Had the spectators, who could have given a football kop lessons in jingoism, affected him? 'No. Once a British crowd get going they can be pretty noisy. So I said to myself: 'Don't let anything disturb you, just get on with doing what you do best'. I was in control. I sort of kept him behind me all the time which was good.'

He would have felt considerably less comfortable if the man over the other side of the net had possessed a serve in the Boris Becker mould. Instead Wilkinson lost the second set because he was broken four times and then squandered it three more times in the final set. It was a courageous effort that deserved better than the straight-sets fate that will greet future inquiries in the record books.

'He was getting frustrated but I couldn't take advantage,' Wilkinson said. 'He showed some respect by serving and staying back sometimes so I was giving him a lot of problems. It was brilliant, I really enjoyed it. I'm disappointed I lost but it's an experience I'll enjoy forever. Hopefully, there will be many more times in the future when I play matches like that. The crowd helped me a lot, they made me feel important. You get pumped up and it's easier to get psyched up. I loved every minute.'

It was a question of hours rather than minutes in David Wheaton's defeat of the 12th seeded Michael Chang. The all-American, all-exhausting clash lasted 4hr 22min - the longest match of the tournament so far - before the former prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.

On rank it was a surprise, until confronted by the statistic that Wheaton has won the last six meetings with the man with whom he used to be bracketed and now has a 23-place advantage over in the world order. Wheaton was once a great hope and a semi-finalist at Wimbledon two years ago, but even in relative decline he is a potent force on grass.

More Wimbledon, pages 28, 29