Wimbledon 97: From Jonahs to Jonas

Guy Hodgson looks at why this year could be a vintage one for once-derided British tennis players at Wimbledon
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It used to be the cheapest shot in British sport. If the cricket or football teams were not targets then our tennis players could always be relied upon to be Aunt Sallys. Bookmakers gave shorter odds on sighting Elvis than a home player winning Wimbledon.

Not any more. William Hill yesterday was quoting 9-1 about the chances of a British man becoming the first to win the singles since Fred Perry in 1936, the same odds as a white Christmas. Snow, it should be noted, has fallen on the London Weather Centre on 25 December for the past two years.

Nobody has accused bookies of being profligate, and the statistics underline their need for caution. Tim Henman is the first men's seed since Buster Mottram in 1982; Greg Rusedski and Chris Wilkinson have just removed seeds and six British men are through to the second round. Success is catching and Karen Cross became the first British qualifier to win a match in the women's main draw since 1976.

Why has the butt of a thousand jokes turned? No one can under-estimate the importance of role models. Henman and Rusedski win a match and players just behind, who have practised with them and know their strengths and weaknesses, have their own confidence bolstered.

"Tim and Greg are an inspiration to everyone," Cross said after removing the world No 44, Linda Wild. Wilkinson, who defeated the 17th seed, Jonas Bjorkman, added: "It's helping the young guys come through. With Tim and Greg doing well people have someone to look up to. Sweden and Germany had Borg and Becker. In football they have the Shearers and everyone wants to play football. Now we have good tennis players and hopefully they will want to play tennis."

Richard Lewis, the Lawn Tennis Association's director of international and professional tennis, also believes that the top two are clearing a mental path for others in a different way. "There's no doubt that having a Henman or a Rusedski takes the pressure off other players," he said. "There's no longer the fear factor that if they don't win no one else will, which was the way it was three or four years ago."

Lewis stresses that what Wimbledon is witnessing now is the fruition of work begun more than a decade ago. A British tennis revival might seem like it has arrived from nowhere, but its roots lie in the process begun in the 1980s. Then the foundations of a coaching programme were laid down, the most exciting product of which is Henman.

"It's not a sudden thing," he said. "It's part of a continuing programme. We've made a lot of changes. I started at the LTA 10 years ago and the situation is unrecognisable compared to then. The training of the players and the coaching education system is now under one umbrella. I think it's very important that the sharp end of playing performance is totally integrated with training and education.

"British players are on a level playing field. They are playing the same amount of tennis and getting the same training and back-up that players from other countries have. That's been happening for some time, so when they come through to maturity they are as good as players from overseas."

The most obvious manifestation of the change in grass-roots tennis is the number of indoor courts that have sprung up around the country. There are now nearly 800, which means almost every promising youngster is within range of year-round tennis.

There are nearly 4m people playing in Britain, a vast improvement. Youngsters in Moss Side and Brixton might not recognise the sporting Britain that is embodied by Henman and Rusedski but people in districts not so far away will.

"We have more to do, there's no argument about that," Lewis said. "There is an assumption around the country that tennis is elitist even if, in reality, it isn't. Changing the image is one of the things the LTA has to do over the next few years."

The LTA, meanwhile, can enjoy at least one change in perception. "It's nice not to be the butt of jokes," Lewis agreed. "In the last two years the cynicism has disappeared but it was a difficult time before that. Now I think British players have earned respect. Last year it was known behind the scenes that we could have a good Wimbledon but it wasn't expected by the public. This year there is an air of expectancy and the players have delivered so far."

And if we get a Wimbledon champion? "The next day I'm sure people will be asking where's the next one coming from?" Wouldn't it be lovely, though?