Grit amid the glitter spells out home truth

Back to the future: Oldest man in draw and youngest woman serve up highlights in front of star-packed crowd
Click to follow

The Royal Box was a veritable gallery of British sporting celebrity here yesterday, and one which positively dripped with the gold of winners. Notably, that was because of the presence of the Olympians Sir Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell. But there were also to be seen, among others, Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Gary Lineker and Sir Bobby Robson, a fact which, for many, only served to accentuate the absence - with one honourable exception - of home interest as we prepare for the second week of these championships.

Summer would not be quite the same if we did not undergo that period of intense flagellation over Britain's inability to produce more than one championship contender born here and another adopted son who, where Wimbledon is concerned, gives new meaning to the expression Canada Dry. And, as for the ladies, well, catching a sight of Virginia Wade at Eastbourne last week brought home just how long it has been since the distaff side of the game has flourished over here.

Nobody escapes censure at such times; not the Government and certainly not the Lawn Tennis Association, who accrue many millions from each Wimbledon fortnight. Of course, more money could be invested in courts, talent-spotting, coaching and coaching the coaches. But the suspicion is that the explanation for Britain's impoverished state is rather less easily pinned down. Simply; insufficient hunger.

Systems don't produce great players. The best tend to be born with talent, nurtured by highly supportive parents and then refine that prowess by virtue of a disciplined lifestyle within the kind of academy that Nick Bollettieri runs in Florida. But qualities that cannot be coached are guts and dedication, whether it's merely to satisfy a desire to be the best in one's field or whether, as one suspects in some cases, there are other motivating factors at play.

Is it any coincidence, for instance, that while not one British woman managed to secure a place in the second round this week, no fewer than nine players from the old eastern bloc reached the final 32? The former champion, Martina Navratilova, insists: "It is not in the genes. The Slavs don't have any special genes compared with the Brits. It is all about opportunity."

What she might have added was that it is actually all about opportunity seized rather than being content with a comfort zone. It was Navratilova who first realised the potential in Maria Sharapova, when the Russian was a six-year-old and participating in an exhibition event in Moscow.

Three years later, she was training at Bollettieri's institution. Another six years on, and Sharapova, a born crowd-pleaser if ever there was one, as well as an excellent performer, is charming the crowds on Wimbledon No 1 court. Having disposed of the Yugoslav Jelena Dokic and poured scorn on those who contend that a 16-year-old cannot possibly possess the maturity to compete in such a pressurised environment, she theatrically blew kisses to her audience. Dad, Yuri, was clearly rather pleased, too, standing up and thrusting a finger in the direction of his daughter, rather in the manner of a footballer who has just netted in audacious circumstances.

The Russian player is, in many ways, evidently not your average teenager. Her interests are not, as one might suppose, roughly similar to her opponent's, namely "shopping, music and the beach", but "reading Russian Literature" and, wait for it, "Sherlock Holmes", though she concedes "I have to really wonder how he got from one point to another." The same thought was possibly going through the head of Dokic, whose own father, Damir, who was once her coach, is, of course, absent these days from tournaments, and hugely unmissed.

Sharapova's responses to adversity and the tabloid fascination with her physical attributes, which will inevitably intrude at some stage into her progress, will attest to her long-term future, but who would suggest that we have not witnessed the birth of a champion. Another Steffi Graff perhaps? The lady herself tends to prefer anonymity these days and you had to be an expert former-champion-spotter to spy her among the spectators on Centre Court, where she witnessed her husband confound those who are prepared to consign him to a premature retirement.

The reason is that Andre Agassi, with that peculiar bird-like strutt, rather reminiscent of David Suchet's portrayal of Hercule Poirot, appears considerably older than his 33 years. The fact that he won his championship way back in 1992, when a fellow named John Major was attempting to run the country, adds to the perception that the Las Vegan really has no right to still be turning out for his annual mutual admiration session with the Centre Court crowd.

His opponent here, "Hallelujah", as Ronnie Barker, another guest in the Royal Box attempted to pronounce it, was, in fact, the Moroccan No 1, Younes El Aynaoui. Some astute judges, including Bollettieri, a former coach of El Aynaoui, had opined that an upset could possibly be forthcoming. When the Moroccan broke Agassi's serve and established a one-set lead, such luminaries may have been nodding knowingly. But the wily campaigner, winner of eight Grand Slam singles' titles, uses his brain to respond to shots that his legs can't manage these days, and ultimately, the three-sets-to-one triumph of the No 1 seed was gained without undue stress.

Quite some response, when some of the sceptics were ready to declare, as Ronnie Barker, nearly said: And it's goodnight to him.