British tennis is not in a remotely sorry state, asserted Elena Baltacha yesterday. If her second-round defeat had not just ended all patriotic interest in anyone not called Andy Murray her words might have carried more conviction. The truth is that you don't need much more than the staying power of a mayfly to be the last remaining Brit in the women's singles at Wimbledon these days, although that was at least a distinction that Baltacha fleetingly enjoyed, before she was outclassed by Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, 7-5, 6-1.
Belgians used to be all the rage in women's tennis but 23-year-old Flipkens has never before reached the third round of a Grand Slam event, hence her manifest delight at the end of this match. She kissed the Court Four turf and waved gaily to the crowd who responded cheerfully, despite their disappointment in Baltacha's performance. The 25-year-old former British No 1 had played and beaten Flipkens twice before this encounter, and might reasonably have anticipated an appearance in the third round, equalling her achievement here in 2002.
Alas for her many supporters, it was not to be. She started the match splendidly, breaking the Belgian's second service game and then holding to lead 3-1, but Flipkens, wearing a jaunty cap and sunglasses, was quickly on level terms, breaking back to make it 3-3. Both players held serve thereafter, but Flipkens increasingly looked the more confident, and indeed the more versatile, varying her shots and even doing the odd bit of serve-volleying, which generally seems to have disappeared from these parts about as emphatically as the woolly mammoth. Still, the first set was tight, and there was no reason to think that Baltacha, who so spiritedly came from a set down to beat the seeded Alona Bondarenko in the first round, would not make a match of it.
Surprisingly, she hardly got a foothold at all in the second set. Dorothy Parker once said that men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses, but nor did Baltacha, at least not with any success, her passing shots flying either long or wide when Flipkens approached the net.
Up in what passes for the bleachers on Court Four, one middle-aged matron observed to another, through mouthfuls of an avocado salad sandwich, that all the fight seemed to have gone out of the Scot, yet that wasn't the problem. She kept slapping her thigh like a principal boy and refused to give up, but while the spirit was willing, the forehand was weak. She made far too many unforced errors, and when she saved three match points at 0-5 down, to win the game and at least trouble the scoreboard operators, her show of defiance was way too little, way too late. "It's a big ask," remarked one of the matrons, as Baltacha bounced up and down preparing to receive serve at 5-7, 1-5. Gargantuan was more like it.
Baltacha is a bright, spirited and likeable woman, who has overcome some horrible health problems to reach her current world ranking of 106, which is higher than it has ever been. Afterwards, while acknowledging that she should have done much better, she was engagingly positive, insisting that her tennis is progressing in terms of two steps forward and one step back. And she rejected the suggestion from a cynical pressman – and endorsed, incidentally, by Murray – that the British game in general is something of a dog's dinner.
"I think for a lot of people, they think that everything revolves around Wimbledon," she said, "[but] if nothing happens at Wimbledon then it's not like, you know, the end of the world. We play 30 to 35 other tournaments. And if you look at how the girls have been performing through the year, you'll see there are four or five of us who are fighting for the top 100 spot, who are not far away. You've got to look at the bigger picture. You've got to see what we've achieved. We have done far better than we have in any of the other years." Which is true, but everything's relative, and Pedigree Chum instead of Asda own-brand is still a dog's dinner.