British play host, but not tennis, at Wimbledon

Half a million fans, hundreds of matches, $16 million in prize money, piles of strawberries and cream, the presence of royalty: When it comes to staging a world-class tennis championship, no one tops Britain.

But not when it comes to producing kings and queens of the court.

Britain has not toasted a Wimbledon singles winner, male or female, for decades. Year after year, partisan crowds rally noisily behind a great British hope, only to find themselves politely applauding an American, Australian, or European hoisting the championship trophy.

So as the annual fortnight at the All England Lawn Tennis Club begins Monday, the question remains: Why is Britain able to stage the world's most renowned tennis tournament but unable to find a player to win it?

For some, it's because of the country's poor facilities and unsympathetic weather. For others, tennis is still something of an elite sport here and many clubs do not reach out to the talent that may be lurking in poorer parts of the country. Still other clubs are simply more interested in putting on a refined social occasion than improving ground strokes.

The last British woman to win Wimbledon (Virginia Wade) did so before most of the current crop of players was born, in 1977. The last man to triumph here (Fred Perry) did so when men still wore long trousers, in 1936.

This year is unlikely to be different. No. 10 seed Tim Henman - the only British man competing for the singles title - is considered a long shot because of an injury. On the women's side it's even worse: not a single player is among the world's top 150.

The vast sums of money that Wimbledon generates are not translating into better British serves and volleys. Tournament profits are channeled through the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), to develop tennis in the country. Over the past six years, the LTA has reaped some $300 million.

But not everyone believes this is money well spent. "The LTA has failed miserably over the past 25 to 30 years," says John Lloyd, the last British man to reach a Grand Slam final - 26 years ago. "It's the biggest scandal in British sports. It's the second or third biggest association in terms of funding, and look how many top players it's produced. Basically zero."

Mr. Lloyd says that Wimbledon is part of the problem. Because of its superior reputation, he says, it puts a lot of less-privileged kids off playing the game "because they think it is out of their league."

Wimbledon tends to generate hysteria for two weeks and indifference thereafter. "There is more to tennis than the two weeks of Wimbledon," says tennis writer Chris Jones.

The LTA has adopted a two-pronged attack to revive the fortunes of British tennis. Initially it spent money on improving facilities, but Britain has only one-seventh of France's indoor courts.

The LTA has set about finding the players to play on them. Several schemes have been set up to get enthusiasts as young as 4. Currently 50,000 British children ages 4 to 10 swing the racket.

But the tennis association moans that many of Britain's 2,000 tennis clubs won't play ball. They are more interested in the social side of tennis - sandwiches, cake, and tea between sets; convivial company after game, set, and match - than in producing Wimbledon winners.

"We have to work with the clubs to deliver this [change in focus], but a lot of clubs are not interested in kids," says Nigel Beacham of the LTA.

Although handsomely rewarded by Wimbledon cash, the association says it suffers financially compared with European countries. "Until this year the government had never invested in the development of tennis," says Mr. Beacham. "If you look at France and Germany, local government pays for all facilities. But in the UK, it's up to the governing body alone."

Another problem for British tennis may be due to mentality. Mr. Jones says a lot of coaches complain of losing players between the crucial ages of 14 to 21 - be it to a girlfriend or other distractions.

"But they have girlfriends in America as well, don't they? And yet they still get up at 6 a.m. to get on the court," he says. "Our attitude is it's great to be good at sport but while not trying very hard."

Another former British No. 1, Jeremy Bates, agrees that cultural differences could be working against British players. Eastern European countries, for example, are "prepared to push their kids harder," while America routinely produces winners because of huge private funding - and the sheer volume of young people playing the game. "We are looking at the scale of 10 years to be competing on that sort of level," Mr. Bates says after narrowly losing the final of the Marsh Classic seniors event - in which, ironically, British oldtimers performed very well.

"There is no magic trick," he adds. "You need lots of kids, 400 or 500, to push them into the top hundred. Then you can start talking about getting Wimbledon champions."

Wimbledon's Top 10

The top 10 Wimbledon seeds, followed by world ranking in parentheses.

Men

1. Lleyton Hewitt, Australia (2)

2. Andre Agassi, United States (1)

3. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Spain (3)

4. Roger Federer, Switzerland (5)

5. Andy Roddick, United States(6)

6. David Nalbandian, Argentina (9)

7. Guillermo Coria, Argentina (7)

8. Sjeng Schalken, Netherlands (12)

9. Rainer Schuettler, Germany (8)

10. Tim Henman, Britain (29)

Women

1. Serena Williams, United States (1)

2. Kim Clijsters, Belgium (2)

3. Justine Henin-Hardenne, Belgium (3)

4. Venus Williams, United States (4)

5. Lindsay Davenport, United States (5)

6. Amelie Mauresmo, France (6), withdrew

7. Chanda Rubin, United States (8)

8. Jennifer Capriati, United States (7)

9. Daniela Hantuchova, Slovakia (9)

10. Anastasia Myskina, Russia (10)

Source: AP

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