Wimbledon 99: Garden for the best of English eccentricity

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SPORT, LIKE politics, is a cyclical business. Twenty years ago, it looked as though no British golfer would ever again win a major championship. Our boys even had the wrong names. Jack, Tom and Johnny were names that belonged at the top of a leaderboard. Maurice Bembridge, Malcolm Gregson and Brian Huggett sounded all wrong. Top-class painter and decorators, maybe, but not golfers.

Similarly, the prospect of a British man winning Wimbledon was, until very recently, earnestly discussed only between day-trippers to cloud- cuckoo land. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, things have changed to the point where it would be only mildly surprising to find a Brit in the final, rather than an occasion for smelling salts. We have, moreover, not one but two men among the top 10 seeds. Admittedly, one of them is Greg Rusedski, and when an Englishman tells you he comes from the West Country he doesn't normally mean Canada. But Tim Henman, the sixth seed, is as English as cream teas and drizzle, and reminded us how good he is by coming within an ace or three of beating the mighty Pete Sampras at Queen's eight days ago.

Traditionally, the crowd at Queen's gets vocal only when the Pimm's runs dry. Wimbledon, by contrast, is the spiritual home of Henmania, and I first became aware of it two or three years ago, when the Centre Court crowd got too partisan for the English umpire's liking. "Please," snapped the umpire. But the shouts of "Come on, Tim" kept on coming. "Please," called the umpire again. Then, in exasperation, he added "Thank you." And a final "Please", even grumpier than before. "Please, please, thank you, please."

It was a peculiarly English, peculiarly Wimbledon, set of rebukes.

Incredibly, Henman was the first man to be disqualified at Wimbledon, in 1995, after accidentally hitting a ball girl with a shot struck in petulance. It never happened to John McEnroe, nor was McEnroe the most badly behaved man ever to play there. Vere Thomas St Leger Goold, runner- up in 1879, was sent to Devil's Island after murdering a widow in the South of France.

McEnroe can't claim to have made the biggest impact on Centre Court, either. That distinction belongs to the Luftwaffe, which in 1940 had the temerity to drop five bombs on the hallowed turf. There were explosions of a different kind in 1977, when Renee Richards entered the women's singles but was forced to withdraw when it emerged that she had started life as a man. Foolishly, she failed to mount the obvious defence, that the sex- change operation was carried out mistakenly, that what she actually said to the surgeon was: "New balls, please."

Suzanne Lenglen caused almost as much fuss in 1929, turning up in a - gasp - short-sleeved dress. And there was similar consternation six years later, when our own Bunny Austin daringly sported a pair of shorts. Soon, shorts were de rigueur, although in 1984 McEnroe was forced to change a navy blue pair before he was allowed on court, a ruling he took with his usual charm and equanimity.

The following year, at least one retired colonel must have dropped his pipe in outrage, when Anne White arrived for her match on an outside court in a skin-tight catsuit. At least it was white. And at least a catsuit removed the possibility of the misfortune that had befallen another player, Linda Siegel, in 1979, when, to the delight of photographers, she popped out of her low-cut dress.

It took a female spectator to get them really snapping, however. In 1996, Melissa Johnson created history just before the final of the men's singles, becoming Wimbledon's first streaker. In the Royal Box, the Duke and Duchess of Kent both roared with laughter, while a senior official of the Lawn Tennis Association appeared to be too engrossed in his programme to notice.

Fuddy-duddiness - aka typical English reserve - is a venerable characteristic of Wimbledon. When Fred Perry won the men's singles in 1933, he was not formally presented with the club tie but instead found it draped over the back of a chair when he returned from the bathroom. And hamburger bars in the grounds were once ordered to stop frying onions because the smell offended people in the Royal Box. Not that Prince Philip would have noticed. On one of his rare visits he was reportedly so bored by the tennis that he left the Royal Box to watch a Test match on television. Still, he could have been forgiven if he'd stayed and nodded off. Dorothy Cavis Brown did in 1964, which wouldn't have mattered so much, had she not been a line judge.

So what eccentricities, I wonder, will Wimbledon throw up this year? I exclude the possibility of a Brit winning the men's singles. Amazingly, that no longer counts as eccentric thinking.