Tennis: Wimbledon cashes in on Henmania

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The Independent Online
WIMBLEDON MADE a record pounds 33m profit from this year's championships, defying rain delays and competition from World Cup football in France. The 6.7 per cent increase was attributed to improved television and merchandising income and record 13-day crowds of 424,998 (20,000 up on the previous record).

Tim Henman's men's singles semi-final against Pete Sampras, the defending champion and world No 1, attracted a television audience of 12 million.

Wimbledon's profits have burgeoned at an incredible rate since passing pounds 1m for the first time in 1981. As with other sports, television revenue is the key, and the Wimbledon rights are due to be renegotiated after next year's tournament.

While retaining the United Kingdom rights - discussions with the BBC are due to start soon - the All England Club have appointed a new broadcast- marketing partner in Europe, Prisma Sports and Media. "We are confident Prisma will assist Wimbledon in strengthening its audience in Europe," said Ian Edwards, the club's television marketing director.

The rise of Henman and Greg Rusedski has heightened British interest in tennis at a time when the sport is having difficulty guaranteeing TV exposure elsewhere. The German market, which boomed with Boris Becker and Steffi Graf in the mid-1980s and become central to the world tennis economy, is a particular worry.

Prisma, also appointed to handle the European rights for football's World Cup in 2002 and 2006 on behalf of Germany's Kirch Group, is confident of tennis's future. "We believe that Wimbledon is one of the sport's greatest assets and, together with the other Grand Slams, will play a major role in leading tennis into the next century," said Peter Sprogis, Prisma's managing director.

Wimbledon's profits go to the Lawn Tennis Association for the development of the sport, and yesterday's cheque was deposited on the eve of the National Championships at the Telford International Centre, in Shropshire.

The Nationals were initiated in 1983 as part of the LTA's drive to provide an environment to improve failing standards. Many of Wimbledon's millions have since been invested in the previously neglected area of building indoor tennis centres.

Telford presented the opportunity of an annual gathering of the "British tennis family", although from the competitive standpoint it was recognised that British players beating their compatriots proved nothing on an international scale.

Rusedski's arrival from Canada to join the cause in 1995, and the home- grown prosperity of Henman, has given the British game a superficial aura of well-being.

Both players quickly outgrew the National Championships. Henman decided to forego the event after winning the men's singles title for the third time in a row last year - sparing a day to pop over to Hanover for a day to beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov as a substitute at the ATP Tour Championship. The 24-year-old from Oxford will be in Hanover on merit next week. Rusedski, who narrowly failed to qualify for a second consecutive appearance, recently gave his finest performance in defeating Sampras to win the Paris Open.

Without Henman and Rusedski, the National Championships is a truer reflection of the state of British game. That ought to be taken as a challenge by the players at Telford this week. Whatever the men and women achieve in competition with each other here, the important consideration is how they fare against international opposition elsewhere. That is the only way the British game will gain any depth.

Sam Smith, who defends the women's singles title here this week, made a considerable impact at Wimbledon last summer by defeating the former champion Conchita Martinez en route to the fourth round. Smith, No 65 in the world, needs a far greater challenge from the younger group if Britain is to regain a position of respectability in the women's game.

The top seeds in both singles events are due on court today (play starts at 10.30 am). Chris Wilkinson, of Southampton, renews his rivalry with Surrey's Danny Sapsford, and Sam Smith plays her Essex team-mate Helen Crook. The 16-year-old Hannah Collin, from Surrey, the nation's top junior, plays Warwickshire's Louise Latimer, the No 4 seed.

Tim Henman is due at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena on Thursday to help launch Britain's Davis Cup World Group tie against the United States there next April. With Henman and Rusedski fit and in form, Britain will be confident of giving a game to whichever Americans decide to come, although the doubles rubber could be a problem given the squad's lack of depth.

But should either Henman or Rusedski be unavailable - or, heaven forbid, both - then the thought of facing any group of Americans is not one to savour.

Fortunately there is still time for the players at Telford this week to ensure that Britain has a hearty squad to support Henman and Rusedski.


Leading ATP rankings

1 P Sampras (US) 3,703 pts

2 M Rios (Chile) 3,670

3 P Rafter (Aus) 3,315

4 A Agassi (US) 2,879

5 C Moya (Sp) 2,819

6 A Corretja (Sp) 2,798

7 K Kucera (Slovak) 2,579

8 R Krajicek (Neth) 2,548

9 T Henman (GB) 2,501

10 Y Kafelnikov (Rus) 2,483

11 G Rusedski (GB) 2,450

12 G Ivanisevic (Croa) 2,137

13 P Korda (Cz Rep) 2,114

14 A Costa (Sp) 1,823

15 M Philippoussis (Aus) 1,792

16 T Martin (US) 1,774

17 T Johansson (Swe) 1,761

18 C Pioline (Fr) 1,710

19 J Siemerink (Neth) 1,669

20 F Mantilla (Sp) 1,643

Other British rankings: 179 C Wilkinson 257; 257 B Cowan 158; 289 M Maclagan 126; 314 M Lee 115; 323 N Gould 105; 342 A Richardson 97; 381 L Milligan 85; 418 J Delgado 71; 467 A Parmar 59.