Wimbledon - 76 years of hurt
by David Cox
Andy Murray's emotional Wimbledon semi-final win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga makes him the first British man in 74 years to reach the men's singles final. A nation rejoices in relief. And simultaneously squirms with embarrassment that until now, the birthplace of tennis had been unable to breed (or even import - yes I'm thinking of Greg Rusedski) a single player capable of reaching the showpiece final of the game's most historic and celebrated event, since the Second World War.
Well, not quite. In the seven decades since good old Bunny Austin, us British tennis fans have become rather used to pesky Swedes and Serbs turning up on our doorstep and stealing the limelight while the most we can expect from our own gallant heros is the odd semi-final here and there. We tell ourselves that the sport is very much a global game these days and despite the £60 odd million windfall that our national tennis association gets from Wimbledon every year, money cannot buy champions (or even finalists).
But now Mr Murray has delivered on his potential and put an end to this particular source of national sporting inadequacy, can he, dare I say it, go a step further and finally banish the ghost of Fred Perry ? When Perry lifted his third and final Wimbledon title back in 1936, little did he know that his achievement would go on to haunt British hopefuls for the rest of his lifetime and beyond.
To put into perspective just how long it's been since Britain last had a male Wimbledon champion, back in July 1936 the BBC was in its infancy having only been in existence a mere 9 years, Fascism was rife across Europe and a young American sprinter by the name of Jesse Owens was about to make a name for himself at the forthcoming Berlin Olympics. The concept of professional tennis was still more than 30 years away and the only monetary reward a Wimbledon finalist could hope for back then was a small gift voucher. It was quite simply another world.
In the 70 odd years between Perry and Murray, many have shouldered the dreams of a nation at SW19. We take a look back at some of the most prominent would-be champions:
A contemporary and Davis Cup team-mate of Fred Perry, Austin competed in a bygone era where men wore flannel trousers and Charlie Chaplin was still a popular celebrity of the time. He never managed to win the Wimbledon title, losing to the great Americans Ellsworth Vines and Donald Budge (the second man after Perry to win the calendar Grand Slam) in straight sets in the 1933 and 1938 finals. With Europe on the brink of World War II, Austin was the favourite to win Wimbledon in 1939 but suffered a shock early defeat. It would prove to be the last time he competed at the Championships.
The post war years yielded slim picking for British tennis until Devon's Mike Sangster forced his way into the nation's consciousness. A multi-talented athlete, Sangster was a promising footballer, playing for Torquay United before switching his attentions to tennis where he made his mark as a teenage sensation in the late 1950s, making his Wimbledon debut aged just 17. Popular with the crowds thanks to his sharp dress sense and movie star good looks. Sangster also possessed one of the biggest serves of his generation with some players retreating so far behind the baseline to try and return it, they became tangled in the back court netting.
Aged just 20, he reached the semi-finals in 1961, where he lost fairly convincingly 6-4, 6-4, 8-6 to American eighth seed Chuck McKinley. This was still seven years before the start of the Open Era and in terms of professionalism, tennis was still at a similar level to the days of Austin and Perry with Sangster receiving a mere £8 for making the last four, plus £20 in expenses. Unfortunately that was as good as it got for Sangster at SW19. His Australian coach George Worthington died suddenly in 1964 and the shock had a considerable impact on his game. He never reached the second week again.
In the late 60s and early 70s, it was a gritty Yorkshireman by the name of Roger Taylor who took up the mantle for British tennis at Wimbledon. Twice a doubles champion at the US Open, Taylor played a key role in the start of the Open Era in 1968 as one of eight players signed by American promoter Lamar Hunt for his new professional circuit which eventually became the ATP Tour. Taylor made the first of his three Wimbledon semi-finals as an amateur back in 1967, losing an agonising five setter to Germany's Wilhelm Bungert.
Three years later he was back in the last four, this time as a professional and expectations were high after his stunning fourth round victory over Aussie great Rod Laver. However he never looked like winning against the evergreen Ken Rosewall who triumphed in four sets to reach his third Wimbledon final at the age of 35.
Time was running out for Taylor and he got his best chance yet in 1973 when thirteen of the top sixteen seeds boycotted the tournament in protest at the Yugoslavian federation's suspension of leading star Nikki Pilic (it was alleged that Pilic had refused to represent Yugoslavia in a Davis Cup tie, allegations which Pilic denied). Taylor disposed of a 17 year old Bjorn Borg in the quarter-finals and was deep into an absorbing five setter with the Czech Jan Kodes when rain started to fall. The match was called off for the day with Taylor leading 5-4 in the fifth set and most of the crowd had headed home when the tournament referee decided to change his mind and call the players out again. With dusk falling, Taylor lost his way on a wet, slippery surface and the smaller, more agile Kodes took the final three games.
Lloyd became the first British man in the Open Era to reach a Grand Slam final, finishing runner-up to Vitas Gerulaitis at the 1977 Australian Open. Back then the Melbourne slam was still held on grass and there were high hopes that Lloyd could emerge to challenge the dominance of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in the 1980s. However Lloyd never built on his early promise, peaking at 21 in the world rankings and he never relished the unique spotlight of Wimbledon. He twice won the mixed doubles with Wendy Turnbull in 1983 and 1984 but never made it past the third round in the singles.
A late bloomer, Bates achieved the best results of his career in his 30s, winning his first and only tour title in Seoul at the age of 31. He never made it higher than 54 in the world but inspired by Wimbledon crowds starved of any sort of home-grown success for over a decade, he twice reached the last sixteen at SW19 in the early 90s, losing on both occasions to the flamboyant French left-hander Guy Forget.
Despite possessing one of the most deadly serves in the world at the end of the 1990s, Rusedski never really fulfilled his potential at Wimbledon. Rusedski first competed at SW19 under the Canadian flag but he announced himself to the British public at Wimbledon 1995, declaring his intentions to compete under the Union Jack (Rusedski's English mother gave him dual nationality). Unfortunately for 'Grinning Greg', he received felt the same affection from the crowds as Tin Henman, perhaps partly due to that lingering Canadian accent and an inability to make it past the last sixteen stage. Rusedski only once made it to the quarter-finals, losing to eventual finalist Cedric Pioline in 1997. While his lefty serve was tailor-made for grass, his brittle returns and suspect movement let him down in crunch matches against the likes of Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis. Rusedski's best chance to make a lasting impact came in 2002 when a series of upsets left his side of the draw wide open. However once again, the fourth round proved a hurdle too far and he lost a heartbreaking five setter to little known Belgian Xavier Malisse.
Unlike Rusedski, Henman was unfortunate enough to enjoy sufficient success to experience the full brunt of the cynical and often savage British media. To all but the most avid tennis fans in the UK, Henman is a much maligned and underappreciated figure and his great friend Pete Sampras may be partly to blame for that. Sampras continuously insisted that Henman would eventually win Wimbledon, fuelling the media driven image of a man who had the title in his grasp, but lacked the mental strength of a champion. However this could not be further from the truth. Henman was one of the greatest overachievers British tennis has had, along with Roger Taylor. He plied his trade in the higher echelons of the men's game when some of the greatest players of all time (Sampras and Andre Agassi, to name just two) were competing at their peak, despite possessing no obvious weapons. Henman's tenacity saw him use a game which was based largely around finesse to reach four semi-finals. Outplayed in three of them by Sampras and Lleyton Hewitt, we will never know what may have happened if rain had not intervened when he was poised for victory over Goran Ivanisevic back in 2001.