Brian Viner: Golf's example offers faint hope to long-suffering British tennis fans

I am old enough to remember when people made exactly the same gloomy prognostications about our golfers
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The Independent Online

On Friday at Wimbledon I watched Roger Federer, of Switzerland, defeating the American Mardy Fish in four sets. It was a decent match, but something kept distracting me from the tennis, and I'm sorry to say that it was the American's exquisitely silly name.

It is especially silly to those of us from the north of England who understand "mardy" to mean bad-tempered. It sounds, actually, like something dreamed up by Dr Seuss. "Strong fish, long fish, tardy fish, mardy fish/ Said the tardy fish 'Sorry I'm late'/ 'Sorry?' said the mardy fish, 'It's gone eight'."

It's not very mature of me, I know, to snigger at a funny name, but perhaps when your affection for a sport is rooted in adolescence, as is mine for football, cricket, tennis and golf, certain adolescent instincts die hard.

And I know I'm not alone. Indeed, I rarely get together with my old friend Davey without us reminding each other of names of American golfers that we find amusing. A conversation between us, late into the evening admittedly, and long after the first pint of beer, can quite easily go, of necessity in cod American accents: "Frank Lickliter II!" "Howard Twitty!" "Rocco Mediate!" "Fuzzy Zoeller!" "Dow Finsterwald!" By the end of which we are both weeping with laughter.

We've never tried it with tennis players, but perhaps Mardy Fish will get us started. It is a somewhat more sober note, however, that I wish to strike on the similarity, or otherwise, between golf and tennis. As far back as I can remember, not a Wimbledon fortnight has gone by - with the possible exception of the Silver Jubilee summer of 1977, when Virginia Wade did the business in her pink cardy - without a lament for the decline of British tennis. And, in these pages on Saturday, a tabulated account of the progress of British players into the fourth round showed that we have plenty of lament.

The statistics made truly depressing reading. Not since 1975 has Britain had more than three representatives - that's men and women together - in the last 16. And in the women's singles, only once since 1986 has a player reached the fourth round - Sam Smith in 1998.

But even more depressing than the past is the present and future. Not a single British woman even reached the second round this year, and of the men only you-know-who made the third round. As for Timbo's next match, against the Argentinian David Nalbandian today, I have a melancholy feeling largely brought on by the analysts on the Saturday edition of BBC Television's Today at Wimbledon. So blithely did they assume that Henman will cruise past Nalbandian that I fear they may have put the Pundits' Curse on him.

Pat Cash, in particular, was disdainful of Nalbandian's chances, saying that his five-setter against Karol Kucera was the worst match on which he had ever commentated. But earlier last week I watched Nalbandian derail the talented Vladimir Voltchkov in straight sets and thought him pretty formidable.

Henman has not had anybody like Voltchkov to deal with yet. He has, however, reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in each of the past eight years. I know this because John Inverdale on Today at Wimbledon made quite a thing of it. Only Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors have achieved such consistency in the past, he told Pam Shriver. What did she think of that? What she thought of that, I suspect, was that Sampras and Connors knew how to capitalise rather than capitulate.

Henman's achievement in reaching the latter stages of Wimbledon for eight consecutive years is meaningful only in that it shows he is singularly incapable of rising to the occasion when it matters most. But Shriver had the decency to look impressed and say that Henman was indeed in exalted company. She could have said that Nalbandian has done the one thing Henman has never done: turned a semi-final appearance into a final. She could also have said that there are no younger Brits who look remotely capable of emulating even Henman.

On the upside, I am old enough to remember a time when people made exactly the same gloomy prognostications about British golfers. A couple of weeks after a Brit last won a singles title at Wimbledon, our best golfers assembled at Turnberry with not a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Open Championship. So dominant were the Americans that, following the decline of Tony Jacklin, it was hard to envisage a Brit ever again winning the Open, let alone one of the America-based majors. And the Ryder Cup was a write-off.

Then came Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, to be followed by Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Paul Lawrie, to be followed in turn by Justin Rose, Paul Casey and Luke Donald. Give or take a Tiger Woods, British golfers are now on level terms with the Americans. And sometime in the future, although God knows when, so will British tennis players be. It's only in the silly names stakes that we might as well give up now.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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