Even the heaving bosoms of the most devoted tennis fans would not have dared to harbour the fantasy that we would sit in our armchairs on a miserable January morning and watch two British players battling out the key game of the first week of the Australian Open in front of a 15,000-strong and lustily appreciative Melbourne audience – and all live on BBC television.
Just imagine the strands of fate that needed to be drawn together to turn such a wild dream into reality. For a start, the paths of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski had to meet at precisely the right junction. The draw saw to that once Henman had beaten Vladimir Voltchkov and Rusedski had overcome Mark Philippoussis in the second round. And it had to be a special confrontation – and so it was, because they had never met previously in Grand Slam action.
Then, both needed to be on top form, which they were since each had won tournaments in the lead-up weeks. Henman triumphed when the two played each other in Adelaide recently, but Rused- ski had looked sharper in beating Philippoussis.
To make it more than just an all-Brit clash it still needed something extra. The unexpected cull of the leading seeds provided that. If the LTA had hired a medical hitman the proceedings could not have been better arranged.
The reigning champion, Andre Agassi, pulled out injured and Australian whiz-kid Lleyton Hewitt caught chickenpox and suffered a first-round defeat; soon to be joined by other top seeds Kuerten, Kafelnikov and Grosjean. That made Henman the highest seed remaining in the competition, and his rapid promotion was not all. The departure of Philippoussis meant that there wasn't one Australian left in the last 32.
We could have been forgiven for fearing that people would be crushed in the rush for the exits. Far from it, they turned out in force to cheer on our lads. And we thought they were a one-eyed lot. We must be confusing them with another big country with attitude. It all added up to a confluence of good fortune the like of which rarely assists British sport in its constant struggle for success. The fact that the match was of exciting high quality, with a flawless exhibition of Anglo-Saxon indignation by Rusedski thrown in, was a bonus.
But even allowing for this phenomenal chain of events, the most unexpectedly audacious act was that of the BBC in clearing out Friday morning's schedule on their main channel to allow the entire nation the opportunity to see the match without the need to be dished or digitalised. In hindsight, it might look an obvious step to take, but I can't recall a similar act of boldness from the Beeb for a sporting event, and it was all the more impressive for being a rapid response.
Being in the same half of the draw means that there was always a chance these two would meet, but all the other bits and pieces of the drama didn't click into place until a day or so previously. As someone who has spent most of the last 20 years berating the Corporation for lacking editorial initiative, I bow my head in admiration and welcome it as further proof that the BBC's attitude to sport has emerged from its Birtean darkness.
But flexibility was never their strong point, even in the days when they reigned supreme in sports coverage. The coverage was great but they covered only what was convenient for them.
For instance, they brought us live every ball bowled in a Test match here but wouldn't dream of letting us see an England Test in the West Indies. And Wimbledon tennis was always central to their portfolio but they cared nothing about allowing us a glimpse of the other Grand Slam tournaments.
Sky gladly filled those gaps as they moved into a command of the sporting scene that wasn't all due to having money and a dedicated sports channel. They had a feel for the viewers' needs that the BBC never seemed to consider.
Now the Beeb are fighting back on behalf of the terrestrial audience in a way that ITV couldn't match because their schedules are much less flexible.
I suppose it is one advantage to having crappy programmes in the morning that they can be ditched so cavalierly. Then again, I doubt if the BBC would have acted so promptly had it been another sport. They know they are on a safe bet with tennis because there are viewer appetites at work other than mere sporting ones. There's nothing wrong with that. Giving the licence payers what they want is never a mistaken policy.
I trust that Friday's venture was rewarded by good viewing figures and that they are not shy of repeating the coup.Reuse content