Over-zealous British fans do 'Timbledon' a disservice

'I do not necessarily agree that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Nor is it the first refuge of a plonker'
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The Independent Online

Greg or Goran, Tim or Todd? If Greg Rusedski out-serves Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon today, which is a tall order, like out-driving Tiger Woods or out-talking Jonathan Ross, and if Tim Henman proves too mobile for Todd Martin, who is 30 but looks 50 and seems to have been playing Grand Slam tennis since '70, then we could yet be in for the first all-British men's semi-final since Randolph Lycett strode out to face John Gilbert in, deep sigh, 1922.

To put that in context, 1922 was the year the All England Club moved to its present site. At 3.30pm on the first day of the championship, King George V appeared in the Royal Box, struck a gong three times and declared the new ground open. He was supposed to do it 45 minutes earlier but there was a rain delay. Plus ça change, and all that. A 12-day Centre Court ticket in 1922 cost £3 and three shillings. In the same month, an 18-year-old called Johnny Weissmuller became the first person to swim 100 metres in less than a minute.

So we've waited a long time for the next all-Brit semi-final, but sorry to disturb the reverie, it won't happen this year either. In fact, call me a doom-monger, but I think the romantic prospect will expire on Centre Court this very day. Even if Rusedski overturns the habit of a lifetime and beats Ivanisevic, I have a feeling that crafty old Martin will sneak it against Henman. For the big American has an irritating tendency not to know when he's beaten. Last year, in the Australian Open and the US Open, he overcame two-set deficits to win epic matches, and indeed has bounced back from two sets down in seven Grand Slam matches since 1993. The fellow has character.

So, to be fair, does Henman. And to give him a back-handed compliment, he has a terrific backhand. But his forehand, always vulnerable, looked iffy in Friday's third-round match. I reckon that Martin will find him out. Which in some ways might be no bad thing. For starters, it will enable Tim to follow the script, which has him winning Wimbledon for the first time in the summer of 2002, thereby applying the final squirt of icing to the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations, and making us all proud to be British and glad to be alive. After all, Virginia Wade obliged in Silver Jubilee year, when an all-Brit ladies' final seemed on the cards until Sue Barker played like Ronnie Barker in the semi.

So that's my prediction. Henman v Rusedski (or better still Barry Cowan) in the men's singles final, Wimbledon 2002. But Henman to crash out disappointingly this year, probably today. Which, as I say, might be no bad thing, because it will also silence for another whole year the "C'mon Tim" brigade, those over-excited nerds whose principal ambition in life, apart from cheering on their hero at what they mistakenly perceive to be a tournament called Timbledon, is probably to bounce up and down at the Last Night of the Proms.

I do not necessarily agree with James Boswell's line about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel, nor even that it is the first refuge of a plonker. By and large, patriotism among sports fans is a Good Thing. I myself pull vigorously for all British teams and individuals (in one case quite literally, for when Linford Christie won the 100m final at the Barcelona Olympics, I incurred a nasty groin strain by leaping out of my armchair). I rejoiced in the success of the Lions on Saturday, and if the England cricket team win or even fail to lose the first Test against Australia, nobody will be more over the moon than I. If they win the Ashes, I might even buy some Union Jack bunting. But then again, maybe not. The flying pigs would get tangled up in it.

The point is that some sports demand vociferous support, and some don't.

Yelling encouragement between points in tennis, as between shots in golf, should be strongly discouraged (incidentally, Henman v Martin brings together the two best golfers on the men's tennis circuit, three-handicap Tim against two-handicap Todd). By all means cheer when your man wins a game, even stamp your feet when he wins a set, but otherwise keep your trap shut.

The compulsive C'mon Timmers, to my mind, deserve a good slap. Not the lovelorn 14-year-old schoolgirls among them – which in any case would be an arrestable offence – but the grown-ups, who ought to know better. When they also cheer Martin's double faults today, as doubtless they will, they shame themselves, Wimbledon, and their Union Jack bowler hats. If it gets too zealous out there, I might even find myself rooting for Todd.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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