On the tennis courts, it's not even close: disadvantage, England


WIMBLEDON, England -- The running joke at Wimbledon is the statue of Fred Perry that stands inside the front gate of the All England Club has a better chance of winning a title than a flesh-and-blood British tennis player.

Perry was the last British man to win Wimbledon. That was back in 1936.

It seems that the British just don't do tennis anymore. The oddsmakers at Ladbroke's betting parlor said it's 1,000-1 against British players winning a men's or women's singles title this year. Which begs the question: Why are the odds so low?

This is a country that can produce world-class athletes in golf, soccer, track and field, rugby and cricket. But in tennis, the British are strictly second-class.

Wild cards -- the tennis equivalent of a free lunch -- had to be handed out to all six British men and eight of the 13 women in this year's Wimbledon field. The country's highest-ranked players on the world computer rankings are Jo Durie at 82 and Jeremy Bates at 195.

"We delight in being dismal," said Virginia Wade.

In 1977, Wade won her Wimbledon title and the Centre Court crowd serenaded "Our Miss 'Ginny' " with a raucous version of "For She's A Jolly Good Fellow." Few realized then that British tennis would go on a longer losing streak than the Democrats chasing after the White House.

"I never would have foreseen that there wouldn't be a wave of young players coming on," Wade said. "After Sue Barker and Jo Durie, there were supposed to be a lot of good players. But they never arrived."

The British women lost to Indonesia two years ago in the Federation Cup. The men managed to win one set in five matches off France in a Davis Cup event last year. New coaches have been recruited to redirect the program. Olga Morozova, the first Soviet woman to crash through the Iron Curtain and play on the pro tour, will work with Britain's young women's players. Anthony Pickard, who trains Stefan Edberg, replaces Warren Jacques as the Davis Cup coach.

"In the three years I was on the job I did not see one exceptionally talented player," Jacques said. "You almost always see one in a country as big as this, but I can't say that I did."

"You hear it every year at Wimbledon, about the terrible lack of depth of talent," Jacques added. "It's going to be 10 years before you see that kind of talent."

Those who have studied the subject say the British just don't have the proper attitude to excel at the world's most individualistic and insular game. The sport they say is overrun with money-hungry players climbing out of eastern Europe or oh-so-spoiled Americans who were raised from the cradle to become rich and famous champions.

"Young players like [Jennifer] Capriati, [Monica] Seles and [Andre] Agassi are held up as bad examples because of the emotional and physical trauma," Wade said. "So the British players use that as an excuse to go out and not even try. You're telling the children, 'Don't bother to be good because you'll be miserable doing it.' The message that should be there is that there are pots of gold at the end of the rainbow."

Money isn't a problem. The British Tennis Association cashes in nicely from Wimbledon and recently constructed 500 tennis courts around the country. Any player who shows even a whiff of ability can now receive proper coaching. But as soon as they're able, the phenoms are off to America.

"I tripped over English players everywhere in the States and in Europe too," Wade said. "They're teaching tennis but they don't stay home. There are not enough facilities. People here are so negative. It's a depressing scene. You have to change that pattern of failure."

The wet English climate doesn't seem to bother Edberg. The world's No. 1 player was born in Sweden and lives in London where he can live quietly, wandering freely on the streets.

But British players who manage to receive invitations to Wimbledon are placed under a microscope. No one really expects a British player to win a championship. But it would be nice to win one match.

"A lot of pressure? Very much," said James Turner, a 25-year-old who was once a promising junior but hasn't broken through the top 500 computer rankings. "You don't have that attitude of going for excellence. In East Europe, they're inbred with the attitude, the dedication and the discipline. That has to be bred in us."

Until the breeding or the training improves, the British will have to be content with serving as charming hosts of the world's premier tennis tournament. Wimbledon's longest-running joke is cast in bronze.

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