Wimbledon `99: An extravaganza of extremes

Andrew Longmore, Chief Sports Writer, explains the special appeal of the Championships
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The Independent Online
ARVIND PARMAR and Richey Reneberg have little in common other than a place in the main draw for the men's singles at Wimbledon and the absolute assurance that they will not be in the tournament a week on Sunday. Parmar is 21, British and playing his first senior Wimbledon; Reneberg is 33, American and probably playing his last.

A wealth of experience divides them, plus a few hundred places in the ranking lists; Parmar will be the lowest ranked non-wild card in the main draw, at 474; after lengthy surgery to his knee, Reneberg, a former doubles finalist, has had to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 1987, his debut year. His ranking has dropped to 286 and he was thinking of giving up until he realised how much he loved the game.

The week leading up to Wimbledon is a bustling concourse of hopes and ambitions. Few will be reported, even fewer realised. It is the immutable law of the ranking system that someone is always on the way up and someone is always on the way down. The difference is that at Wimbledon the ups and downs are more extreme.

Reneberg says Wimbledon is the one tournament he looks back on with regret. He reached the last 16 once, but ran into Greg Rusedski's serve. The British player thumped 35 aces past him; the next round he couldn't hit the ball in court. Wrong place, wrong time. Other years, Reneberg says, he has not done himself justice; his determination to qualify reflects a sense of unfinished business.

"I don't take a massive ego out there on to court, so qualifying is not a problem," he says. "When you're young you think you can do this forever, it's only when you've been away for a bit and start getting older that you realise it can't last. Many's the time I've wanted to head for the gun shop. Now, I don't take it so seriously any more." That he had to beat his doubles partner, Jonathan Stark, to reach the first round was just one of those quirky little knife-thrusts that come with the job. "He'll be back talking to me again in a couple of days," Reneberg smiles. They will be a dangerous pair when conversation resumes.

On the court nearest the lower bank at Roehampton, next door to Reneberg's match with Stark, Parmar is struggling to cope with the superior power of Max Mirnyi, a gangling young Belarussian, who is just starting to make a name for himself on the tour. Mirnyi has beaten Jim Courier twice and reached the semi-final in Orlando recently. But Parmar, brought up on indoor hard courts, is counter-attacking intelligently and has taken two of the first three sets, probing the suspect temperament of the eastern European. The fourth is tense; the match will be decided here. Parmar breaks to lead 5-4. All he has to do is hold serve one last time and a place in the first round draw is his. He leads 30-0, but drags a forehand wide and misses a volley, Mirnyi senses his chance and reaches break point with a stop volley. Three times Mirnyi has points to level, twice Parmar serves an ace. A third ace in the game brings the British player to match point. Mirnyi is in turmoil now. He knows he should be winning, his father and brother are watching, yet he is about to lose. His head says be cautious, his heart says get to the net.

In the deciding point, he charges in recklessly, but realising his mistake too late, stops half court and leaves a gaping hole for Parmar to pass. The pair shake hands and Parmar leaves. But Myrni stays on, sitting on his chair, staring into space, ignoring the cluster of ball girls who have gathered at the net to chatter. He sits for what seems an eternity before changing his shirt, picking up his bag and trudging off to his family. He will have to wait for another Wimbledon. His coach blames a bad line call in the third set. Parmar talks of his pleasure at having "earned the right" to play at Wimbledon.

The English, they say, are masters of ceremony and Wimbledon is the tennis equivalent of trooping the colour. Wimbledon's approach is accompanied by the steady beat of the drum. The seeds released on the Monday, the draw made on the Tuesday, no tournament dominates preparations quite as openly as Wimbledon.

You can feel it on the practice courts at Aorangi Park on the outskirts of the All England Club where clay-courters try to find their feet on this strange green carpet and the regulars rediscover the joy of the volley after the footslog of the French. Steffi Graf walks back into the little clubhouse after practising and a young workman stops to congratulate her on winning the French. She smiles and he calls out: "Even if you did beat Martina." "Hey," she shouts back, "it happens."

If it happens again on women's finals day, there will not be a dry eye on the Centre Court because Graf has become that much adored English figure, the vulnerable champion.

The Parmars and the Renebergs will at least have the luxury of carrying their own baggage. Tim Henman will have to shoulder everyone else's. Henmania can no longer be the joyous celebration of unexpected British success; Henman is seeded six and is therefore more likely to win than 122 others, which hardly makes him an unknown quantity.

People will expect him to win this year. And he can, but it will depend on the form of Pete Sampras, on the mood of Andre Agassi, on Richard Krajicek, Pat Rafter and, more tenuously, on whether the immensely gifted Yevgeny Kafelnikov can find out how to win a tennis match again and whether Greg Rusedski can find a way to win on bad days.

Parmar and Reneberg will be bit- part players, on the way up, on the way down. "It might be my last time here," says Reneberg. "You've gotta stop sometime, you know." But it is weeks like this which make it hard.