Brits Bloom On Grass Before Wimbledon

Ryan Peniston Eastbourne
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After a truly remarkable month in the run-up to Wimbledon, British tennis fans may just be in the unprecedented position of being happy that none of the British players at Eastbourne reached the Final, so that they can at last get some proper rest and rehabilitation before Wimbledon starts next week. The irony is, however, that the spectacular June 2022 that British tennis players have enjoyed may not earn them the reward that they deserve. That is because Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players, and the subsequent decision of the ATP and WTA to strip ranking points from Wimbledon, means that even if the Brits do well at Wimbledon, they will not earn the ranking points that they would in any other year.

Flaming June? Volcanic June!

“Flaming June” is the title of pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Frederic Leighton’s famous painting of a young woman in an orange dress asleep in an armchair. Well, if Sir Frederic were alive today and attempting to capture the spirit of June 2022, he could do worse than to paint a young British tennis player (male or female) with their arms aloft in triumph, and call it “Volcanic June”, in testament to an extraordinary month of results by a wide variety of British players – especially the unheralded ones.

It all began in Nottingham, where Dan Evans won the men’s ATP Challenger event for the second time in three years, and Harriet Dart reached the quarter-final of the WTA 250, before losing to eventual finalist Alison Riske of the USA. Then it continued at both the ATP500 event at Queen’s, traditionally the biggest men’s warm-up event before Wimbledon, and at the Birmingham WTA 250. Ryan Peniston, the breakthrough British player of 2022, had already done well in Nottingham, but he raised his game even further at Queen’s to defeat Casper Ruud, fresh from reaching the French Open Final, en route to the quarter-finals, while Jack Draper also excelled in beating Taylor Fritz, the Indian Wells Champion, in the first round. Meanwhile, in Birmingham Katie Boulter reached the quarter-final, losing to Simona Halep.

Finally, in Eastbourne this week, which has traditionally always been the last and biggest warm-up event for women before Wimbledon but which now also has an ATP250 event attached, the rising tide of British tennis almost became a tidal wave, as numerous British women and men produced the biggest wins of their career: Jodie Burrage beat top seed and World No.5 Paula Badosa; Katie Boulter beat two-time Major finalist Karolina Pliskova; Harriet Dart reached her first WTA quarter-final before losing to two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova; and Jack Draper progressed to the men’s semifinal, in the process beating Britain’s hero of Queen’s, Ryan Peniston, in the quarterfinal.

For those British fans who remember the pre-Tim Henman era, when for nearly 20 years between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s Britain produced few if any players of note, it was enough to have them choking on their Pimm’s. What on earth could have produced such a remarkable upsurge in form, right across the British men’s and women’s games?

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The A&E Effect

Probably the single most important factor in this sudden improvement in British tennis is what might be called the “A&E Effect”, with “A&E” being short for “Andy and Emma”–Murray and Raducanu. For the first time since the late 1930s, when Fred Perry was at his peak and Dorothy Round Little was winning her second Wimbledon title in 1937, Britain has two current players, one male and one female, who are both Major champions. Raducanu, of course, is the reigning US Open Women’s Champion, after her historic run from the qualifiers to the final last September. And although Andy Murray’s third and last Major title came at Wimbledon in 2016, there can be no doubting the truly seismic impact that he has had on British tennis, even in the years since.

As is often said these days, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” meaning that young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, need role models who they can identify with to inspire them. Well, for decades British tennis was effectively a “disadvantaged background,” but now players of both genders can see British Grand Slam champions, and even more importantly they can see the hard work, sacrifice and dedication that are required to create a champion. For seven decades for British men and for nearly five decades for British women (the last British Major winner before Raducanu was Virginia Wade at Wimbledon in 1977), there were no such role models. But now there are and all the other British players are clearly learning from them.

The LTA, or Lawn Tennis Association (the anachronistically named ruling body of British tennis), deserves considerable praise for this. In particular, when the pandemic shut down global tennis two years ago for nearly six months, the LTA instantly developed an innovative series of individual and team events between the British players, dubbed “The Battle of the Brits,” which brought together almost all the British players, male and female. Operating so close to a Major-winner like Murray must have inspired Raducanu; it has certainly inspired Cam Norrie, who has had a remarkable 18 months on the ATP Tour, culminating in his Indian Wells win last autumn, without yet translating it into a second-week appearance at a Slam; and it may yet inspire others, if not to win Majors or even Masters or WTA1000 events, then at least to considerably improve their game and in so doing considerably rise up the rankings.

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Wimbledon: The Fly In The Ointment?

Ordinarily, this unprecedented run on the grass of Nottingham, Birmingham, Queen’s and Eastbourne would have made British tennis fans and even more importantly British tennis players themselves hugely optimistic about their chances at Wimbledon. That would have been especially true after a generally favourable first-round draw today, with no British player, male or female, being given an obviously “unwinnable” match against one of the top seeds. Indeed, in general, the draw has been kind to the British players, with most of them playing either wild cards or qualifiers.

The problem this year is that even if they do well at Wimbledon, that will not translate into the rankings boost that they would have enjoyed in any other year. The All-England Club’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from the tournament, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was always controversial. It became even more controversial when the ATP and WTA responded by withdrawing ranking points from the tournament, for what they regarded as clear discrimination against their Russian and Belarusian members, who, after all, are representing themselves in an individual sport and not their countries in team sport.

However, Wimbledon’s decision looks even more lamentable now, when it is likely that it will do more harm to British players than to Russian or Belarusian players. In effect, the world’s greatest tennis tournament might actively be damaging the progression of British players, because, if they do well over the next fortnight, they will not see the upturn in their ranking points that they would ordinarily.

Nevertheless, whatever happens at Wimbledon, the short grass court season leading up to it has been spectacular for British players. The hope now is that, regardless of what happens in SW19 over the next few weeks, they will be able to take their grass-court form onto other surfaces for the rest of the year. And quite apart from the boost that that would give to their own individual careers, it also augurs well for the hopes of the British Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cups this autumn.

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