WIMBLEDON '95: Sign me up for a personality cult

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The Independent Online
The day began with a champagne reception to celebrate Chris Evert's admission into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a reminder, if any were needed, that the equivalent shrine for British women would not so much be a hall as a cupboard underneath the stairs.

While the All England Club is possibly planning a champagne reception for the next British girl to break into the world's top 200 (the No 1, Clare Wood, is ranked 226), one of the most impressive advances in women's tennis is coming from Japan. With six girls inside the top 66, Japan, in tennis terms, is the land of the rising daughter.

Along with the golfer Jumbo Ozaki, the No 6 seed, Kimiko Date, is one of the few Japanese sports personalities capable of knocking sumo wrestling off the back page of the Tokyo newspapers, and she came through against one of those powerfully built German girls you see ferrying two-litre jugs around the tables in Munich beer gardens.

Date has also appeared on one or two front pages of late, concerning rumours that her association with her coach has involved a touch more than polishing her double-handed backhand. Those with a more jaundiced view of the women's circuit say that the real surprise is not so much being romantically linked with her coach, but that the coach is male rather than female.

The Japanese are pretty hot on propriety, and as it is apparently not done for their young ladies to play tennis the wrong way round, Date had to convert from left- to right-handed at an early age. In the current world of women's tennis, an early age is somewhere between being weaned from breast milk to rusk, and the discovery that the Evert collection of Hall Of Fame memorabilia includes a picture in her first tennis dress at the age of eight suggests that she was one of life's late starters.

At 24, you would have thought that Kimiko was almost past her sell-by Date, and for all her skill, she is an unlikely grass-court champion. Her ground strokes are disproportionately heavy for her physique, and she also has variety in her serve - but as this variety manifests itself in first serve pitter, second serve patter, she is unlikely to trouble the likes of Graf.

The heaviest serve of the day was out on Court 14, where Stefan Edberg was being blown away in straight sets by Dick Norman, who, despite sounding a good deal more British than Greg Rusedski, turned out to be a Belgian.

There are any number of entrants for the title of the world's thinnest book, but if you dropped the encyclopaedia of famous Belgians on your foot, you would be very unlucky to sustain anything more than a light bruise.

Belgium is just the place if you like strong lager and a plate of mussels, and as for the tonnage of chips they get through, the French have a standard newspaper headline joke. "Thousands feared dead in Belgian air disaster - light plane lands on chip shop."

Like the Date match, everyone was cheering for one opponent, and it wasn't Norman. As the former Wimbledon champion shuffled around desperately attempting to recall how he used to play tennis (without much success), the air was thick with cries of: "C'mon Stefan!" There were ladies old enough to have been shouting:"C'mon Fred!" when Perry was in his pomp, and girls young enough to have been born too late for Borgmania. But they all, to a woman, shouted: "C'mon Stefan!" Not an "Allez Dick!" to be heard.

Leaving aside the embarrassment quotient to be negotiated by shouting "Allez Dick!" across a crowded court, all this support for Edberg remained a little puzzling. After all, if there is one tome thinner than the book of famous Belgians, it is undoubtedly The Wit And Charisma of Swedish Tennis Players.

Edberg is blond, polite, smart, but he is the sort of chap who would not alter his deadpan expression if someone slipped a whoopee cushion on to his seat during the change-over. Not to put too fine a point on it, he has been No 1 bore on the computer for most of his career.

Good for the game, then, to have someone as charismatic as Norman see him off. Er, not quite. The blank, faintly puzzled look at Norman's post- match press conference reminded you of one of those foreign correspondents waiting for a cue from the London newsroom, but getting nothing but whistling and static crackling down the earpiece.

Possibly just the language difficulty then. Apparently not. A Belgian television journalist sighed: "If we want 90 seconds of material, we have to ask him at least 12 questions."

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