It is a strange thought but had it not been for the pandemic, Britain’s leading players might not be enjoying such success at this year’s Wimbledon. After 10 Britons made it into round two, the best since 1984, Katie Boulter and Liam Broady will bid for a place in the fourth round of a grand slam for the first time, trying to join Heather Watson and Cameron Norrie, who are already there after wins on Friday.
In early 2020, when the pandemic began, British players were thrust together by circumstance, rather than design. The only place they could train once the first set of restrictions were lifted was the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. Once maligned and considered an expensive white elephant, it again became a place of hope for Britain’s top players.
With Andy Murray offering advice and practice with anyone who wanted it, the camaraderie grew. The Battle of the Brits tournament, organised by Jamie Murray, gave competitive tennis when they needed it most.
The only disappointment for Boulter, in particular, is that she will not be back on one of the main two courts, having revelled on Centre Court in beating Karolina Pliskova, last year’s finalist, in the previous round. Instead, she will be first on No 2 Court, while Broady will play on No 1 Court, against Boulter’s boyfriend, the Australian, Alex de Minaur.
The 17 British players in the main draw this year was the most since 2001 and though 10 were wildcards, the success rate has been impressive. Seeing a group of home players supporting one other and feeding off one another has been uplifting. And the fact that it’s a group of new names for the most part is equally encouraging.
Boulter’s resurgence has been especially noteworthy. Having dropped out of the top 100 in 2019 after suffering a stress fracture in her back, she has had to be patient, something she admits is not in her nature. When Emma Raducanu came out of nowhere to win the US Open, she could easily have been thinking: “That should have been me.” Instead, she told herself: “Why not me?”
“Hundred per cent, yeah,” she said, when asked if she had been inspired seeing Raducanu win her first slam. “What she did was astonishing. I think everyone in this room knows how incredible what she did was. It doesn’t come every day. She came out, she surprised everyone, and she played some fearless tennis. That’s what’s so impressive. I hope I can go out there and do the same thing. I’d love to do what she’s done. You never know, one day it might happen.
“I’m going to take one step at a time. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I knew I’ve put the work in to win some rounds here. I just hope I can keep that going, keep the momentum going. I just look forward to going out there and enjoying myself and having a smile on my face. I don’t think it gets any better than playing on Centre Court and getting my first win on there. Ultimately that’s going to give me a lot of energy going through to many more rounds, hopefully many more tournaments.” Boulter faces France’s Harmony Tan who stunned Serena Williams in the first round.
The left-handed Broady has been smiling his way around the All England Club and fully deserves his chance. At 28, it has taken time for Broady to reach this stage and if there were ranking points at this year’s event, he would surely be ranked inside the top 100 for the first time.
The banter between Broady and Andy Murray has been a regular source of amusement for the tennis twitterati but Broady also said the former world No 1 has been an inspiration and major factor in his success of late. “Andy has been one of my toughest critics, but also one of the greatest advisers that I’ve had,” he said. “It’s easy for people to say: ‘You have to believe in yourself more, you’re a great player.’ But when one of the greatest players of all time says that to you, it carries a lot more weight and does kind of strike home a lot harder.”
Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff continue their title bids on Saturday but if Boulter or Broady joins Watson and Norrie in round four, it will cap an unlikely week for British tennis.