Wimbledon 98: British players come to the fore

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The Independent Online
VISITING THE All England Club yesterday was a rather strange experience. For one thing, the sun was shining. For another, a British woman, Sam Smith, was practising for a match in the fourth round. On a sombre note, the journey along Somerset Road entailed passing the home (or former home) of one of the first-week losers, the Australian Warren Jacques.

Jacques's playing career ended years ago, but as a coach he will be remembered as the British Davis Cup captain prior to Tony Pickard and David Lloyd. On Saturday, Jacques and his wife, Helen, were working for Radio Wimbledon when television pictures showed smoke billowing from their apartment at the top of one of the two tower blocks overlooking the Centre Court.

The Jacqueses, who had been living in the apartment for only four months, discovered that all their belongings had been destroyed in the blaze, which is believed to have been started by an electrical fault. An adjacent apartment was also ruined, but not before the resident raised the alarm. No one was injured.

Down on the Centre Court, Tim Henman was in the process of advancing to a fourth-round match which sees the British No 2 return to the great arena today to play Australia's Pat Rafter.

On Court No 1, Monica Seles, who has experienced more than her share of problems in the past, wondered if it was safe to continue playing her third-round match against Yayuk Basuki, of Indonesia. "The smoke was pretty bad and both Yayuk and I felt we should stop," Seles said, "but in the end it was probably better to just go on."

Seles, who won, 6-2, 6-3, is scheduled to play Sandrine Testud, the French No 14 seed, after the Henman-Rafter match on the Centre Court, where play opens with Pete Sampras's unfinished business with Sweden's Thomas Enqvist. The defending champion leads, 6-3, 5-5.

Britain's heroine, Sam Smith, whose match was over before the smoke began, is due to set foot on Court No 1 for the first time this afternoon, having taken the precaution of a peek at her posh new workplace yesterday. Smith's reward for defeating the No 8 seed, Conchita Martinez, who overcame Martina Navratilova to win the title in 1994, is a place in the world's top 60 and an opportunity to become the first British woman to reach the quarter- finals since Virginia Wade in 1979.

To accomplish that, and to take her winnings from pounds 25,100 to pounds 48,070, Smith must first account for the experienced Nathalie Tauziat, the French No 16 seed, whose grass-court game is always a danger. Smith does not have a reputation for grunting, which is perhaps as well, since it was Tauziat, it may be remembered, who first blew the whistle on Seles here in 1992.

Jo Durie, once ranked as high as No 5 in the world, was the last Brit to play in the fourth round of the women's singles (her prize in 1985 was pounds 6,950). Durie lost to the American Barbara Potter. Some of Britain's representatives since might have struggled against Beatrix Potter.

Henman, who spends a good deal of his time playing backgammon during the rain breaks, joined Rafter in a game of cricket on Saturday. Indoors, of course, in the locker-room to be precise, 10 men versus boredom.

A piecemeal championships is difficult for everybody. "We were on and off the court for three days," said Arantxa Sanchez Vicario after defeating Magdalena Grzybowska, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. The Polish hopeful had to face Arantxa on the first day, Sanchez on the second day, and Vicario on the third day. The Spanish No 5 seed, who is projected to meet Martina Hingis in the quarter-finals, sets off again today in a third-round match against Austria's Sylvia Plischke.

Jacques will forgive your correspondent for mentioning that whatever set his house on fire had nothing to do with what was taking place on the Centre Court. Henman was heading for a fifth set against Byron Black, of Zimbabwe, until a suspect baseline call enabled the Oxford player to break back for 5-5. Henman's win, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, left room for improvement today.

"I haven't taken enough of the opportunities I've created," Henman acknowledged, "and against a good serve-volleyer like Pat [Rafter] you're not going to get so many chances."

Rafter, has struggled to pull his game together this year, having defeated Greg Rusedski, the British No 1, to win the United States Open last September. After losing at Queen's Club less than a fortnight before heading for SW19, both Rafter and his compatriot Mark Philippoussis, wondered if the short journey would be worth making.

Australia is guaranteed one quarter-finalist, with Philippoussis due to play Jason Stoltenberg, from New South Wales, in the fourth round, and the sixth-seeded Rafter appears to have risen from his depression.

"Yes," Henman said. "I think `Wimbledon' is the word that answers that. It's probably the most prestigious tournament in the world, as I've said numerous times before. And it just goes to show how, like a match can turn around quickly, how the same thing can happen with your thoughts about your situation.

"In the second round in Rosmalen [the week before Wimbledon], Rafter won a tough match against [Andrea] Medvedev and went on to win the tournament. All of a sudden he's feeling really good about his game. Two days before that, he was wondering what he was doing. Likewise with Philippoussis. When you go through your ups and downs, you've got to keep plugging away."

While it seems doubtful that Shearer, Beckham, Owen et al will be asked if they have been inspired by the deeds of Henman and Smith, England's World Cup campaign has made an impact in the interview room at Wimbledon. Henman was asked if he felt he must not let the nation down.

"No, not at all," he responded. "The nation doesn't come into it at all. When I go on the court, I have great support, but in an individual sport, you have to play for yourself. If I put my game together on the court, then everything else will take care of itself."

Best not to mention the flag of St George flying atop the workmen's cabins here.