Henmania drowns out drama of outside courts

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The Independent Online

While Britons in their millions were agonising over Tim Henman's shaky start against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo on Court One yesterday, Hungarians in their twos and threes were enduring similar tribulations out on Court Six, where their golden girl, Petra Mandula, succumbed in straight sets to a diminutive qualifier from Barcelona, Nuria Llagostera Vives.

While Britons in their millions were agonising over Tim Henman's shaky start against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo on Court One yesterday, Hungarians in their twos and threes were enduring similar tribulations out on Court Six, where their golden girl, Petra Mandula, succumbed in straight sets to a diminutive qualifier from Barcelona, Nuria Llagostera Vives.

It is always instructive to spend some time on Wimbledon's outside courts, not least to be reminded that every match is a big match for somebody. The latest Henman drama unfolding on Court One meant diddly-squat, as they say in Barcelona, to the gaggle of Vives fans several hundred metres away. They were led by her mother, Maria, who uttered a splendidly uninhibited shriek of delight as her 24-year-old daughter completed a 6-3, 6-3 victory over the woman ranked 40th in the world.

It is instructive also to consider just how good a person has to be at something to be the 40th best in the world. Indeed, Mandula was once ranked 30th, yet hers was not a name that drew many neutrals to Court Six, even in the best of the day's sunshine.

Two extremely elderly women watched from their wheelchairs, but on closer inspection, they were both asleep. A couple of young men in Netherlands football shirts stayed for a while, but then moved on. A 20-year-old Bath University student called Russell Woolwright watched with rapt attention, but that was because he was tapping details of every point into a hand-held IBM computer.

For the players' benefit, IBM provides a precise record of every match - how each point was won, what percentage of first serves were in, where each successful serve was placed. James Bond does not get as much detail from Judi Dench as M about his next opponent as competitors receive at Wimbledon.

For what spectators there were, it was distracting to be located directly next to Court Two, where the 19th seed, Marat Safin, was playing, and losing to, his fellow Russian, Dmitri Tursunov. The excited oohs and sympathetic aahs - some of them doubtless from the mouth of the watching Boris Yeltsin, unless he too was snoozing - it being just after lunch - rather underlined the sense that Mandula v Llagostera Vives was not the main event. But to reiterate, to them it was.

At 26, Mandula is, or rather was, one of only five players in the women's singles who was born when the oldest player in the field, the wild card Martina Navratilova, won her first Wimbledon title. But for Navratilova's presence in the competition, which makes it laughable to call anyone else a veteran, it would be possible to describe Mandula as practically that. This was her 16th appearance in a grand slam event, and three years ago she even reached the quarter-final of the French Open, losing to Kim Clijsters. Last month at Roland Garros Mandula was seeded 29th.

On grass her form is nothing like as good, however, and she played poorly yesterday. Mandula's father is a dentist, her mother is a dental assistant and her sister is at university studying - in a fit of rebellion - dentistry. So it was a shame that she could find nothing to smile about. Nor did she give her coach, Gabor Koves, much reason to smile. He watched with growing consternation. "Sim card," he shouted, which I took to be an exhortation in Hungarian, rather than anything to do with Mandula's mobile phone. The arresting thing was that Koves never called the same word twice.

"Seb!" he yelled. And then something which sounded like "Saul Bellow!" followed a minute or two later by "Blab!" and "Dowie!" Whatever these words were, the implication was clear: pull your finger out.

It must be frustrating for the coaches, especially on the outside courts, where they can practically touch their charges yet not offer them any advice. At the end of the first set I asked Koves what he would say to Mandula if he could. "To be more upbeat, to move her legs more, and to get the ball in play, especially on the second serve," he said, miserably.

As for Llagostera Vives, if she can win her next match then it seems likely that she will play the former champion, Venus Williams, in the third round. That really will give her mother something to shriek about.

Mandula must now concentrate on the women's doubles, in which her partner is the Belgian, Els Callens. She is also hoping to enter the mixed doubles. But if she fails to prosper then she will be moving on earlier than planned from the private house in Kingston-upon- Thames, which will at least save her the £50 she is paying per night for one room. You don't get too much glamour out on Court Six.

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