Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Rain no pain for Brits

IF A Martian had landed at the All England Club yesterday and been asked to assess what was going on, the chances are that its conclusions would have nothing to do with tennis.

"I think, maybe, there was some kind of convention of very polite individuals who talked animatedly about precipitation," the alien would probably have reported to its superiors. "Their attention was focused on a series of rectangular plots covered with material," the alien would have added, "and they seemed to derive a serene pleasure from staring at these plots while laughing inanely and saying: `Lovely for ducks, eh?' " Say what you like about the British, but their ungrudging acceptance of horrible weather is second to none.

Guy Manners, a fan who had travelled from Birmingham with a friend - having paid pounds 42 each for their Centre Court tickets - said: "There's not a lot you can do about it." Did it not mar his enjoyment of the occasion? "If there's no play before 6pm, we get half our money back, and if there's no play at all, there's a full refund," he said. It barely irked that a single stroke in anger counts as play, regardless of which court in the grounds that shot is played on.

The Independent yesterday asked 20 visitors to SW19 whether they thought that Wimbledon needed retractable roofs. Not surprisingly, given the unrelenting drizzle, 16 of them said "yes". More remarkable was the respondents' placid attitude to a day of trudging around getting wet.

"It's all right, just nice to be here," said Alex Knowles, who had travelled from Northampton with his brother, Tris. "What can you do?" said a woman from Cheshire and her friend, adding that "the atmosphere" made it worthwhile. The most damning criticism came from a Surrey couple who said the rain was "a little disappointing."

Such is the weather's hold on the nation's psyche that the official Wimbledon Compendium, a 376-page tome on every aspect of the Championships down the years, devotes six pages to the subject. Riveting reading it is not - unless of course you want to know how many post-war days of play have been completely lost to rain (12 before yesterday), or fantasise about years such as 1949, when conditions were described as "brilliant sunshine during the whole meeting."

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