Wimbledon 99: Empty shoes of Jo and Virginia

Hope springs eternal as some young talent emerges but the prospect of a world-beating British woman is still a long way off.
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The Independent Online
THE CHANCES of a British win in the women's singles final a week on Saturday is about as likely as an extraterrestrial dropping in on the Prime Minister within the next decade. William Hill are offering 1,000- 1 against a British woman winning Wimbledon this year and the same price against a UFO landing in Downing Street in the next 10 years. The bookies are not often too wide of the mark, but is the longer-term prognosis so dire?

The home challenge, consisting of the country's top eight players, will be spearheaded by 27-year-old Sam Smith, the British No 1 and world No 77, who reached the fourth round last year. It will also include the 19- year-old Abigail Tordoff, the British No 8 and world No 268, who stands out as one of a few home-grown under-20s on the rise. It is not inspiring to note that 10 countries, including Belgium and Austria, have more representatives in the top 200 than Britain's six, but those half- dozen do represent progress. Aside from Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, there are no Britons in the men's top 200.

"The women's game here is the most promising it's been for years," Keith Wooldridge, the manager of British women's national training, said. "Four years ago we had one girl in the top 200, Clare Wood, who was No 177. Now we have six, and we also have Sam in the top 100. But we are still off the pace.Take a look at the world stage and you see girls from other countries of 17 and 18 who are making a big impact already."

Wooldridge added that there is a group of promising British 14- and 15- year-olds, but there is a lost sub-generation between them and the more established women in their 20s. "What we are lacking is something in between the girls like Sam and the young group. We'll have to write that gap off though, and make sure it doesn't happen again."

It is 16 years since Jo Durie finished the year in the top 10. Why have we waited so long for a successor? "We need the numbers," Wooldridge said. "We've got to offer not just tennis but the full lifestyle package of sport and education." He added that convincing parents to allow their daughters to dedicate their youth to a sport where only the 150 best in the world make a living - and even then for an average of seven years - is not easy.

According to the Lawn Tennis Association, there are only 18,000 youngsters in Britain who play any level of competitive tennis. "Exposure has to be earlier, you cannot waste time," said Mark Cox, the former great hope of British tennis who now oversees youth development. The LTA now has a "sift" programme in place, he added, whereby about 40 girls aged nine and 10 are recommended by county coaches each year for assessment sessions at Bisham Abbey.

"It gives the girls a good idea of what might be to come," Cox said, adding that hopefuls are now followed into their teens, and then, at 14 or 15, offered the chance of LTA monitors and educational and financial assistance. "We do like to think we are seriously addressing the issues," Cox said. Had such systems been widespread 10 years ago, perhaps Sam Smith would not have taken three years away from the women's tour - aged 20 and just as she approached the world top 100 - to go to university. Although she subsequently broke into the top 100 in 1997 and had a good season last year, British hopes of a future top 10 player do not realistically lie with her, especially as first-round exits from tournaments at Edgbaston and Eastbourne in the past fortnight suggest she might not replicate last year's Wimbledon performance, and therefore slide down the rankings.

One player who had a good Eastbourne, relatively speaking, was 21-year- old Louise Latimer, the British No 3 and world No 153. She came through two tough qualifiers - including beating Colombia's Fabiola Zuluaga, the world No 45 - to reach the main draw, and then lost narrowly to the Ukrainian Elena Tatarkova, the world No 62, after a gutsy display in the first round.

Starting this week, with a first-round match against Anne-Gaelle Sidot of France (world No 44), Latimer's aim is to breach the all-important top 110, which brings with it qualification for the Grand Slam draws. "At the moment there are five of us [Britons] between 130 and 200 in the world and hopefully we can push ourselves and each other higher and higher," she said.

Latimer pointed to several factors that might explain why British women in recent years have not emulated Durie, Virginia Wade and Sue Barker. "A lot of people realise it's a hard life. With prize-money alone you couldn't manage," she said. "And there hasn't been a role model for young British women, unlike in Germany, where they've had Steffi Graf. And kids don't know who there is to follow these days. I haven't got satellite TV, and to me it's obvious how little tennis is on [terrestrial] TV."

Nothing will change overnight, but there is a feeling, especially among experienced observers, that British fortunes are changing. "It's incredible, when you think about other country's figures [of young people playing tennis], that anyone is coming through at all," Jo Durie said. "It's been tough, relying on one or two people in each age group, but I think the LTA are trying to do as much as they can."

Some solace, perhaps, can be taken from the men. In 1995, the odds on any British man winning at Wimbledon by the year 2000 were 500-1. The prospects today, at 9-2, are more than a 100-fold better, which goes to show, surely, it is only a matter of time before the women are challenging again.

GLOBAL WOMEN'S LEAGUE

Country Top Top Top

10 100 200

United States (2) 4 18 29

France (8) 2 11 16

Spain (7) 1 7 13

Germany (3) 1 3 10

Italy (24) 0 2 10

Czech Rep (5) 1 4 9

Russia (18) 0 3 8

Belgium (16) 0 5 7

Austria (14) 0 3 7

Australia (71) 0 2 7

S Africa (12) 0 3 6

Slovakia (25) 0 3 6

Japan (31) 0 1 6

Britain (77) 0 1 6

Romania (21) 0 3 5

Hungary (78) 0 1 5

Switzerland (1) 1 3 4

Netherlands (49) 0 3 4

Croatia (52) 0 2 4

Argentina (59) 0 2 4

Belarus (17) 0 2 3

Canada (55) 0 2 3

Slovenia (64) 0 1 3

Bulgaria (96) 0 1 3

n Figure in brackets indicates ranking of that country's highest-ranked woman; other figures indicate the number of players in each category.

BRITISH WOMEN AT WIMBLEDON

1990

Third round: A Hobbs.

Second round: S Gomer, S Loosemoore.

First round: J Durie, J Salmon, C Wood, B Borneo, M Javer, A Simpkin, S Smith.

1991

Second round: A Grunfeld, J Durie.

First round: B Borneo, S Gomer, S Loosemoore, M Javer, S Smith, J Salmon, C Wood, B Griffiths, S Bentley, K Hand, V Humphreys-Davies.

1992

Second round: S-A Siddall, A Grunfeld.

First round: C Wood, S Gomer, S Loosemoore, J Durie, M Javer, V Lake, V Humphreys-Davies, S Bentley, C Hall.

1993

Second round: M Javer, C Wood.

First round: K Cross, L Woodroffe, J Durie, S-A Siddall, C Hall, A Grunfeld, A Wainwright.

1994

Second round: S-A Siddall.

First round: C Wood, M Javer, K Cross, A Wainwright, C Taylor, J Pullin, J Ward, J Durie.

1995

Second round: J Durie.

First round: M Miller, E E Jelfs, S-A Siddall, C Wood, J Pullin, K Cross, A Wainwright.

1996

Second round: R Viollet, C Taylor.

First round: S Smithm, C Wood, M Miller, J Ward.

1997

Third round: K Cross.

Second round: L Woodroffe, K Cross.

First round: L Ahl, J Pullin, S Siddall, S Smith, C Wood, C Taylor, L Woodroffe, K Cross.

1998

Fourth round: S Smith.

Second round: K Cross, L Latimer.

First round: J Ward, L Woodroffe, J Pullin.

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