Why I will miss today’s cull of the Brits at SW19
Wimbledon should be well under way: you can tell that because the weather has turned damp and cold. But, however brooding the skies, missing out on the tournament is one of the great disappointments of this pandemic. To attend Wimbledon fortnight, even to follow it on the television, is always a privilege: brilliantly organised, packed with drama, unfailingly it delivers the highest level of athletic pursuit.
Right now, in its opening couple of days, is when the tournament is at its most beguiling. That is when those with ground tickets, unable to find a place in the show courts given over to the requirements of corporate hospitality, can happen upon star seeds slumming it in the boondocks of the outer courts. That is when the place is so packed with thwack and wallop it is hard to know where to look.
And the first Tuesday of the fortnight almost always offers up one of Wimbledon’s most enduring traditions. Over the years, we have grown used to the inevitability that by Wednesday the singles programme will be stripped of all home interest apart from Andy Murray and, latterly, Johanna Konta. Tuesday is the “cull of the Brits”.
There can be no more privileged beginner in world sport than a young British tennis hopeful. While the prodigies from around the world have to scrap for the chance to play its hallowed lawns, every year more than half a dozen young Brits are invited by the All England Club committee to jump straight into the main draw however lowly their world ranking. And, boy, is it worth getting the call-up. Never mind that 30 of the 35 British wild cards between 2014 and 2019 fell at the first hurdle, what a lucrative stumble it was.
First-round losers last year took home £45,000. As sporting subsidies go, the All England Club is among the most generous around, helping sustain faltering British careers with its annual handout: in the five years between 2014 and last year, Wimbledon paid nearly £1million to British wild-card recipients who lost in the first round.
There was no greater beneficiary of such generosity than the player who became known as the master of the wild card. Arriving in England from Serbia with his family as an eight-year-old in 1992, Alex Bogdanovic was quickly earmarked as a prospect. And rightly so: in 2001, he became the first player representing Britain to reach the junior US Open semi-final (a tournament Andy Murray won three years later). In 2002 he was awarded the first of his wild cards to Wimbledon. Raw and inexperienced, he lost in his opening match, but Paul Annacone, then the Lawn Tennis Association’s head coach,
Bogdanovic said he was described as British when he won, but Serb when he lost
reckoned that the brave manner of his defeat suggested “he would go a long way”.
As it happens, over the course of his career, Bogdanovic did not venture much further than London SW19. For eight successive summers, he was there at the All England Club, the most regular beneficiary of a wild card. It was just as well the committee favoured him. Without the wild-card system, he would never have become something of a Wimbledon institution. He competed in 22 grand slam qualifying competitions, making it to the main draw just the once, in the 2004 US Open, when he lost in the first round.
In his career, he once wryly pointed out that he would be described as British when he won a match, Serb-born when he lost. At Wimbledon, he was always Serb-born: he lost eight successive first-round matches. Invariably he was back home by Tuesday night. Still, that meant he trousered more than £250,000 in losing fees, enough to keep him on the circuit.
His luck ran out in 2010 when Wimbledon decided that – at 26 years old – he was less of a British prospect and more of a Serb-born has-been. His wild-card days were over. And oddly, despite all that experience of playing at the world’s finest tennis tournament, that year he did not make it through qualifying.