The English Patient

Forget the Queen. God save British tennis.

IF you were to play armchair psychologist, you might conclude that the British suffer from cognitive dissonance — the distressing mental state in which people have conflicting thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours. After all, they invented the modern game of tennis and they host its most prestigious event, yet the last home player to lift the Wimbledon trophy was Virginia Wade in 1977. If it's a men's winner you want, you have to go back to 1936 and Fred Perry.

Why can't the Brits win? Money isn't the issue. As it is every year, in 2002 Wimbledon's $40 million profit was handed to the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to fund the nation's tennis development.

"You can't buy talent," Goran Ivanisevic says. "The Croatian Tennis Association has no money, but we have a lot of good players. Maybe it's something in the water."

Maybe it's a lack of hunger, says Britain's favourite son, Tim Henman. Eight wild cards into the main draw at Wimbledon are available each year for men and women, and the majority go to British players. It's a practice, Henman says, that saps incentive.

Yet others point to the dearth of indoor courts in a country where it rains almost 200 days a year.

"Excuses," says Henman's former coach David Felgate, the LTA performance director. The infrastructure is in place, he says, and it's up to the players to make it work. "I want us to have a good number of players at Wimbledon on merit," says Felgate, who recently announced that four of the eight wild cards in each draw now will be determined by a playoff system and not automatically given to British players.

The country has two decent prospects, though neither was born in England: Elena Baltacha, 19, ranked No. 157, who's from Kiev, Ukraine, and Alex Bogdanovic, 19, a native of Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, who's in the Top 600.

"There's an opportunity for you, if you work hard, because you could be the one," Bogdanovic says. But "people are expecting you to do well, so there's a bit of pressure." — David Law