Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Wimblemund part 1: British women's tennis


There are eleven British players entered in this year's Wimbledon singles championships - five men and six women. This is a number which may also be expressed as Andrew Murray and ten other goons. However, with all the focus on Andrew Murray in the build-up to the tournament and with me being a pervert, I decided to perversely take a look at the fortunes of the British women instead.

This tends to be fairly easy on the whole. No more than a few hours work, anyway. The total capitulation of the British women is as traditional a part of Wimbledon these days as someone with a stupid hat on gurning at the big screen on Henman Hill. It is perhaps worth reflecting, then, that since the beginning of the Open era in tennis (1968, as you WELL KNOW) it is only Britain's female players - rather than their male counterparts - who have managed to make trophy engravers at the Grand Slams get their little chisel out and start wittling. For all the sweaty, frenzied, menopausal expectations thrown at poor old Tim Henman, he never made it to a Grand Slam final, whilst John Lloyd (Australian Open (December) 1977), Greg Rusedski (US Open 1997) and Andrew Murray (US Open 2008) all fell at the final hurdle. And that's your lot. Buster Mottram doesn't even get a look in.

Our lady players, on the other hand, won five Grand Slam titles between 1968 and 1977. The most famous of these was the last, probably as it is always cited as the last British singles success at Wimbledon as we all go mad, reflecting on how Jeremy Bates just made it to the 3rd round. However, Virginia Wade also won in Australia (1972) and at the US Open (1968) when both tournaments were played on grass. She is joined by Ann Jones, who won Wimbledon in 1969 and Sue "Sue Barker" Barker, who won Roland Garros in 1976. With Ann Jones also being twice a beaten Grand Slam finalist, it's really the success of Britain's women who Andrew Murray is seeking to emulate, whether or not he knows it. Does he know it? Probably not.

Virginia Wade's 1977 Wimbledon win remains, however, the last time a British woman reached a Grand Slam final, and the tail-off since then has been pretty rapid. Britain's top player these days is Anne Keothavong, the world number 51. She is joined in the draw by her four immediate subordinates: Elena Baltacha (106), Katie O'Brien (108), Mel South (129) and Georgie Stoop (185) as well as last year's Wimbledon junior champion, Laura Robson, beaten yesterday afternoon in only her second ever senior tour match by Daniela Hantuchova. Laura Robson, hereafter to be known as Flora because she looks like a Flora, played with great verve to win the first set but just couldn't keep the pace against Daniela "Jittery Lil" Hantuchova, a former top-10 player. Still, it was a mature performance by Flora. In fact, the locker room onanists had already reached the vinegar strokes before someone reminded them that Flora is still only 15 years old and that what they were doing was wrong on multiple strata.

Flora, then, is very much on the radar for the future, but in 2009 she has reassuringly kept to the framework established over the past 30 years and been knocked out in the first round. Mel South obligingly joined her late yesterday evening. Georgie Stoop, however, is putting up a disconcertingly strong fight against Vera Zvonereva, the seventh seed, having just won the second set to take it to a decider when bad light stopped them last night. Keovathong, Baltacha and O'Brien all start their campaigns today. There are 128 people in a Grand Slam singles draw, so if mathematics is any guide (it isn't) and the WTA rankings are an accurate reflection of ability in the women's game (they're not), only Keothavong will make it to the last 64 and match her best ever performance in SW19, the second round in 2008. She plays Patricia Mayr of Austria, ranked 80, second on Court 4. O'Brien and Baltacha, meanwhile, face difficult challenges in Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic and Alona Bondarenko of Ukraine, ranked 35 and 33 respectively.

The problem Britain's women really face, particularly at Wimbledon, is the schizophrenia of British tennis fans. We tend to start off with profoundly low expectations and relentless pessimism. However, should Keothavong progress again today, or Georgie Stoop pull off a huge shock against Vera Zvonereva (she of the best name in women's tennis), our thoughts will immediately turn to Virginia Wade once more. Whilst it would be wrong to blame the film Wimbledon for this, it is almost overbearingly formulaic, two stars.

Grunting news

Yesterday saw some insane grunting. The grunting day started badly, as I watched BBC Sports reporter Mike Bushell get all doe-eyed over world number 4 Elena Dementieva. In a traditional sports VT, we saw Dementieva, last year's Olympic champion, knocking a few balls about with Bushell, who used to be on BBC South Today. Yet even this rather meagre workout had her shrieking like a grilled baboon. Signs were bad for when serious play began, and duly Maria Sharapova peeled the paint off of Sue Barker's teeth. Sharapova has been, in recent years, the single outstanding maker of mammalian noises on court but her title is under threat from a 16-year old Portuguese player, Michelle Larcher de Brito. She also progressed yesterday, as Klara Zakopalova's ears fell off and caught fire on Court 17. Sharapova and Brito are in the same half of the draw. Should an unlikely semi-final match between the two materialise, I'm going to Greenland with pieces of cheese in my ears.

Could British women's lack of success be due to their relative inability to grunt, shriek and orgasm their way through their matches? It's doubtful. It's just what makes them better people. Everyone loses eventually, so it's so much nicer to do it with a modicum of decorum. In a forum. Drinking some rum. Up yer bum.

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