Wimbledon 1997: They who must serve

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The Independent Online
One service has already been held on the new No 1 Court. Songs of Praise was recorded at the stadium earlier this month, in the course of which a few silent, patriotic prayers were doubtless offered up in plea for a home victory. Britain could do with a men's singles champion after a gap of 61 years. More likely, with a host of big men wielding space-age rackets on a lightning surface, divine intervention will come in the form of Old Testament thunderbolts.

In Tim Henman, Britain at last has a player capable of lifting spirits. It might not be this year, or next, but the calm assurance of his sweep to the quarter-finals 12 months ago augured well for the future, even if his scratchy form in the preliminaries has lent perspective to the nation's expectations. Henman is the first British player to be seeded since Buster Mottram in 1982, recognition of his excellent form before surgery on an elbow halted his climb up the rankings. The beauty of grasscourt tennis, though, is that confidence can return in the flick of an eye. The bad news is that since full seeding began in 1927 the men's title has never been won by the 14th seed.

The Union Jack will fly elsewhere, though the Richter scale will be the best measurement of Greg Rusedski's first-round encounter with Mark "Scud" Philippoussis. The two fastest servers on the tour (Rusedski recorded at 139mph, the Australian at 142) will trade missiles at a distance of 78 feet, reviving the rumbling debate about rollerball and wooden rackets. If you want to turn back time, Ilie Nastase will probably be playing in the vets.

After the revolution in the springtime Parisian air, Wimbledon will be anticipating a return to law and order. Boris Becker and Pete Sampras can bring three titles apiece into their potential quarter-final meeting, while three other champions - Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek and Pat Cash - will be in the field. Only two seeds from the USA, the lowest since the introduction of 16 seeds in 1975, reflect shifting patterns. Pat Rafter and Philippoussis, dangerous customers both, mark a welcome return for a traditional grasscourt country; Yevgeny Kafelnikov from less fashionable Russia is becoming an accomplished counter-puncher.

If Krajicek, the defending champion, can survive his usual walkabout - and, Henman apart, his path to the semi-final could not be more inviting - he will meet Goran Ivanisevic, another wayward talent, in the semi-final. That one will not be frilly, but a Sampras v Krajicek final has classic potential, with the American set to win his fourth title.

The wheel turns even more slowly in the women's game. Just three different champions in the last 15 years and, with the withdrawal of Steffi Graf, only one, Conchita Martinez, in this year's draw. For once, the title is wide open to the charm of youth, to Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova.

It is asking a lot of Hingis, the new world No 1, to graduate so quickly into a Wimbledon champion, though she won the junior title and is mature beyond her 16 years. This is foreign land to Monica Seles too. Perhaps Jana Novotna, the best grasscourt player in the field, can banish her demons and sob on the Duchess's shoulder as a victor, or Arantxa Sanchez Vicario rediscover the form which took her to the last two finals. If the Czech girl does finally triumph, there will not be a dry eye in the house nor much blood left in the knuckles.