Wet Wimbledon salutes its warming rays of sunshine

John Roberts on the Championships that saw tennis beat the rain to come up smiling
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The Championships have rarely been so down to earth, from the exuberance of People's Sunday to the wear and tear betrayed by the Centre Court after a fortnight of rain delays and the dragging of one or two feet.

Happily, there was sunshine on the concluding two days, so it was appropriate in more ways than the obvious that Sir Geoffrey Cass, the new president of the Lawn Tennis Association, should be seated at the top table for the Champions' Dinner at the Savoy on Sunday evening.

Sir Geoffrey, who was knighted for his accomplishments as the chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Company, must have worked wonders behind the scenes to replace Much Ado About Nothing with All's Well That Ends Well.

Among the uncrowned champions was Chris Gorringe, the chief executive of the All England Club and the friendly messenger of foul weather. "Ladies and gentleman, the latest news from the London Weather Centre..."

In doubles, the Australian "Woodies", Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, continued to reign on court, but no duo performed with greater diligence than Alan Mills, the referee, and Eddie Seaward, the head groundsman.

Although delayed, the arrival of the mixed doubles champions, Cyril Suk and his sister, Helena Sukova, was greeted with relief as well as pleasure. Their presence was confirmation that the tournament would not have to be extended into a second Monday.

The 16-year-old Martina Hingis and the 25-year-old Pete Sampras, having vindicated their No 1 seeding for the respective singles titles, enjoyed an opportunity to relax without having to wait for the covers to come off anything other than the main course.

(The dinner of champions? La Bonne Bouche, La Vichysoisse Froide, Le Supreme de Volaille en Chemise, Sauce Vin Blanc aux Fruits des Bois, Les Pommes Olivettes, Le Rendez-Vous de Legumes, Le Pouding d'Ete Savoy, Le Cafe Savoy, Les Pralines en Surprise.)

Behind Hingis was the Swiss flag, which was also making a debut as a focal point of the celebration. John Curry, the All England Club's chairman, congratulated Hingis on the maturity of her game for one so young and hoped that she would return to be wined and dined on many future occasions.

Curry also paid tribute to the efficiency of Sampras's second serve and the consistency of his service returns - "and, of course, there's his volleying, and the running forehand..."

Whether viewed from the angle of spectator, commentator or competitor, few flaws were noted in Sampras's game as the American virtually glided to his fourth singles title.

Ilie Nastase, passing the press box while making his way to his seat during a change-over in one of the matches, was asked if he would have relished playing Sampras in that form. "Naaaaa!"

Hingis thanked everybody, particularly her mother, Melanie, and worked in the passing shot that she had looked up to Sampras ever since she first came to Wimbledon as a junior. "It's a pity that the champions don't dance any more," she said.

"That was a very good speech for your first time here," Sampras told Hingis. "When I was here for the first time, I couldn't put two words together, so I'm very impressed with that."

The majority of observers were impressed with No 1, whether the subject happened to be Sampras, Hingis, or the new No 1 Court, which appears destined to grow in people's affections as the number of great matches staged in the fine arena begin to mount.

Tim Henman, the British No 1, advanced to the quarter-finals for a second consecutive year, and on this occasion he was joined in the last eight by Greg Rusedski, the British No 2.

The temptation is to draw a veil over their performances on the second Thursday, when both men served only disappointment.

Henman was outclassed by Michael Stich, the 1991 champion, and Rusedski was short of energy and inspiration when confronted by Cedric Pioline.

However, guarded optimism is recommended. If Henman and Rusedski learn from their experiences and mistakes, as they should, other British hopefuls will continue to take encouragement. Five years ago, the notion of two Brits in the quarter-finals would have been laughed out of court.

Wimbledon will survive without Boris Becker, and certainly without Michael Stich, both of whom have departed the scene. As for other absent friends, it remains to be seen whether Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi will recover the will and the fitness to make another challenge.

Although talk of a roof tended to dry up with the rain, the Club will consider ways of improving the Championships, and not only those suggested by fair-weather friends.

Earlier starting times on all the courts helped clear the backlog of matches on this occasion, but a fair amount of luck was involved. Although tradition remains the cornerstone of Wimbledon's world-wide appeal, a review of the scheduling is in order. If a move to earlier starting times offers the organisers scope for manoeuvre, why dally until 2pm on the main show courts?

Curry's parting shot on Sunday evening was not intended to be quite so reminiscent of Loony Tunes' "That's All Folks!", and, in any event, there were smiles of empathy when the chairman said, "And that really is the end of [Wimbledon] 1997... Phew!"

Greg Rusedski yesterday moved up from 27 to 24 in the world rankings - the highest ATP ranking of his career. Tim Henman remains at 20.