Wimbledon 98: Asian tennis tipped for the top

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The Independent Online
TAMARINE TANASUGARN, of Thailand, is resolutely flying the flag for Asia at Wimbledon, where less than one in 10 of the competitors come from the world's largest continent.

But her moment of glory at Wimbledon could be short-lived, as she now faces top seed Martina Hingis in the fourth round of the women's singles.

Asian players have long dominated the racket sports of table tennis, squash and badminton, but international success in tennis has been more elusive. The addition of tennis to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games sparked renewed interest in the game and 41 Asian countries are now members of the Asian Tennis Federation.

Kimiko Date and Szuzo Matsuoka won hefty media coverage and a devoted following in Japan, but big wins on the circuit always escaped them.

The Indian brothers Vijay and Anand Armitraj delighted crowds throughout the world with some exquisite touch play in the doubles, while Vijay even landed a role in the James Bond film, Octopussy.

The one big Asian success story in tennis has been Michael Chang, who won the French Open as a teenager. He may be feted in Asia but the continent cannot claim him as their own because he was born in New Jersey and is an American citizen.

Tanasugarn's steady progress through the first three rounds at Wimbledon has been decidedly low-key - she has yet to drop a set or give an interview. She is the daughter of an Olympic basketball player, Virachai, who now coaches her. But even her loyalties are divided as she retains dual Thai and American citizenship.

On the men's side of the tournament, there is renewed cause for Indian celebration as Leander Paes - an Olympic bronze medallist - and Mahesh Bhupathi are third seeds in the men's doubles and have not dropped a set so far.

In its latest magazine for the up-and-coming young players on the circuit, the International Tennis Federation asked: "Is Asia to be the Next Big Thing in tennis?"

It felt the jury was still out, but concluded that: "Considering how Asian players have dominated the other racket sports over the last few decades, you would have to take the possibility very seriously indeed."

John McEnroe's voice resounded around Wimbledon again on Monday - but this time in song, not anger.

Interviewed on Wimbledon's Centre Court in a bid to raise the spirits of the rain-soaked crowds, he finished by bursting into a chorus of "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Fans politely refrained from shouting "You can't be serious" over a tuneless and quavering rendition.

Two years ago, fans were treated to an impromptu concert in the rain by veteran British pop star Cliff Richard, with Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver as his backing group.

McEnroe's fiery temperament combined with his brilliant stroke play made him one of the most exciting players of his generation.

He now works as an art dealer and television commentator, and recently said he hopes his own children do not follow in his famous tennis footsteps. But he then added: "If they are sick and crazy enough to decide they want to be tennis players, then that is their decision."

The British have turned talking about the weather into a national obsession. But despite the unseasonal gloom, Wimbledon referee Alan Mills does not have nightmares about wet weather. And that's official.

Several spectators, following last week's constant rain at Wimbledon, have wanted to know whether Mills, like Noah before him, was thinking of building an Ark - not for animals, but for flooded tennis players.

But the unflappable Mills, who has been the championship referee for the past 16 years, has no such problems. "This year's Wimbledon is by no means as bad as last year, which was my worst," he says.

"The tournament in 1991 was pretty bad as well, and both then and last year we had to play on the middle Sunday. But this year has not been too bad.

"In any case I'm too tired at night to have nightmares. I drink coffee all day and sleep all night. I take each day as it comes."

He sounds just like Glenn Hoddle.