Weight of expectation | Andy Murray faces the entire tennis dreams of a nation (or a group of nations) every summer at the Wimbledon Championships. (Image | The Guardian)

Around Wimbledon time the whole of the United Kingdom is gripped by a sort of hopeless optimism and desperate, clinging hope that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year for Tim Henman. Or, for the past few years, Andy Murray. The British game is woefully inadequate in terms of the true title contenders and tennis greats it produces.

Rather than witnessing any great grass-roots success, we are given one gifted player who struggles under the inexorable weight of pressure to live up to our delusions of grandeur. Sounds all a bit too familiar to the malaise of English football, doesn’t it?

Or so we may have thought. However, already at Wimbledon 2012 we have learned a number of things. Firstly, Rafael Nadal is not unbeatable, as Lukas Rosol demonstrated. It appears as though there is a future for genuinely talented players in British tennis, and the green shoots of recovery are not confined to one gender.

When it came to the second round of the Championships this year, Britain had five, count them, five players making it through. Anne Keothavong, Elena Baltacha, James Ward, Murray and Heather Watson, the new kid on the block. Watson’s match against Jamie Hampton saw the Guernsey-born 20-year-old win (6-1, 6-4) before being taught a lesson by world number three Agnieszka Radwanska in her third round defeat. (6-0, 6-2).

James Ward, meanwhile, won his first ever Grand Slam match against 36th seed Pablo Andujar in the first round. Showing exceptional mental and physical strength, Ward came back from 3-0 down in the fifth set to overcome the Spaniard, before narrowly losing out to number 10 seed Mardy Fish in another five set thriller. Although the same age as the British number one, Ward (as the second highest-ranked British male) is ranked 173rd in the world, 169 places below the Scotsman. Nonetheless, the “breaking a hoodoo” effect, of having a British male in the second round of Wimbledon and competing against the sort of players the country ought to be producing, cannot be underestimated.

New hope | Heather Watson showed glimpses of excellent ability under the watchful eye of the Lawn Tennis Association with her first and second round wins. (Image | The Telegraph)

Particularly in the case of Heather Watson, this doesn’t appear to be a flash in the pan. There is a basis for long-term development here, and with the women’s game drastically less competitive and lower quality than the pinnacle of men’s tennis, there is a genuine opportunity for a young Briton to compete. Speaking during an interview for the Guardian, Boris Becker was at a loss to explain what has been (and still is, despite the positives) wrong with British tennis.

“No one knows exactly why. This country has the most important, most successful tennis tournament in the world, you have the LTA, a long‑standing professional organisation, you have a country that has been historically crazy about tennis, and yet Fred Perry was the last man to win Wimbledon way back in 1936.

“The LTA has a beautiful tennis centre in Roehampton, I’ve been there many times, it’s got great facilities, great courts, indoors and outdoors, state‑of‑the‑art, a lot of people are involved, but something is not working 100%. Every year a lot of money comes in [from Wimbledon] and I’m told it is spent on the best boys and girls in the country but nothing seems to happen.”

It is hard to ignore the idea that the situation with British tennis is reflective of something lacking in many sporting disciplines across the UK. Perhaps it is the “it” factor we simply aren’t looking correctly for, as Becker believes. Whatever the truth behind it is, by the end of this month we may be cheering a new British Wimbledon champion, and awaiting a year from now when Watson could be less the “novice”, more the challenger we’ve lacked for so long in the women’s game.

Tweet the author | @chriskking

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