Wimbledon 1997: Sapsford sets up a party

Nick Callow sees a brave Briton seal an encouraging week for home talent
The man from the Lawn Tennis Association was in a flap. For the past five years, he has had to arrange an impromptu Sunday press conference for the sole surviving British competitor in the men's singles.

It is a tradition that started on a garden lawn when Jeremy Bates first reached the last 16, and last year the star of the show was Tim Henman. When Surrey's Danny Sapsford yesterday became the seventh home player to reach the second round, finishing a match that began on Tuesday night and equalling the British Wimbledon record for first-round winners, the man from the LTA was looking for somewhere to erect a marquee and stage a full-on party.

Sapsford, 28, revealed that the last time he had still been in the singles so late in the tournament was 1991: "The last time it rained all week," he grinned. "I made it to the second Friday once - but that was only in the mixed doubles."

With a bit of help from the weather and more of the same on court, he could yet equal his record. Resuming at a set-all, three-all against Venezuela's Nicolas Pereira, Sapsford sensed the match was there to be won. But the manner of his eventual 3-6 6-2 7-6 6-3 win still surprised him. Pereira, 26, has film star looks, Goliath's physique and is ranked 120 places ahead of Sapsford in the rankings. He is also the former world junior No 1, a player who once won three junior Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon.

But Sapsford, with a film extra's looks and David's physique, wrapped up this match in exactly an hour. They had started the contest in the gloom of Tuesday evening and spent the next two days dodging the rain. "It was worth the wait," Sapsford added. "On Tuesday, I felt I had to play above myself to win but, in the end, I did it by playing within myself, and it worked. Now I just want a rest and a lie-in. Because of the rain, I've been the first player in and the last one out for the past four days."

Watched on a sparsely populated Court Eight by his coach Alan Jones, the man who guided Jo Durie to the world's top five, Sapsford was brave, cool-headed and went for his shots when he had to. It was an impressive win.

Play was also resuming on the adjacent court nine, where another of Jones's pupils, Lucie Ahl, was attempting to become the second British woman into the second round. Ranked four in Britain, but 200 in the world, Ahl was attempting to recover a 2-6 , 4-6 deficit against American Ginger Helgeson Nielsen.

The right-hander from Devon, very much like Sapsford in appearance, style and tenacity, made the most of her time on court. She extended the first game to eight deuces and saved three match points before succumbing 6- 4.

Manchester United fanatic Clare Taylor did not fare much better, concluding her unfinished match against another American, Corina Morariu, in an emphatic 6-2, 6-1 defeat.

As Sapsford had shown, court eight was the place to be great. That is where Lorna Woodroffe scored the win of her career, beating Switzerland's Patty Schnyder, who is 209 places above her in the world rankings. Woodroffe - a Surrey colleague of Sapsford, and another player coached by Alan Jones - won 6-4, 6-4 to beat the world No 33. In doing so, she become the only British woman to join Devon's Karen Cross in the second round.

Woodroffe, who is sharing a flat with Cross this week, insisted: "The British women's scene is improving. We are all moving up the world rankings, and everyone is pushing each other to higher standards."

But the figures said otherwise when the full first-round statistics came in, a mere five days behind schedule: only two out of eight British women reached the second round, compared to seven out of 10 of the men.

Maybe the Sunday press conference won't be such a great party after all - not enough women.