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Half of Britain’s contingent are already out of Wimbledon and more early exits for the home players will spark the annual summer debate about the state of tennis in this country.Martina Navratilova & Mihir Bose

The sport’s true fans follow it throughout the year but — the fortunes of Andy Murray aside — the only time tennis really becomes a national talking point is during the grass court Grand Slam.

And Martina Navratilova, who won nine of her 18 major singles titles at SW19, thinks this is a crunch issue for the game here.

“The problem is British tennis gets attention just once a year during Wimbledon and then the rest of the year people forget about it,” she says.

Murray is one of only two Britons in the men’s singles but the other, Jamie Baker, is also a Scot, meaning that for the first time at Wimbledon there is no Englishman in the main draw.

If, come a week on Sunday, Murray were to take the title and end Britain’s 74-year wait for a Grand Slam men’s champion then any criticism of the health of the sport here would be quickly quashed.

But while Martina thinks the world No4 has “the game to win Wimbledon” she does not think it will happen this time.

She says: “He is a great athlete. In the last two years he has grown up, got his emotions under control. He is not so whiney, he does not look for trouble and is mentally more mature. But there are a lot of things that still need to fall into place. He has to get his game together. He is finding it hard to overcome losing in the final of the Australian Open and it has been a difficult year for him.”

Since that straight-sets defeat by Roger Federer, Murray has lost eight of his last 19 matches and failed to get past the quarter-finals of any tournament. By contrast, he went into last season’s Wimbledon having four won titles in 2009, including at Queen’s.

He failed to defend that title earlier this month, exiting to Mardy Fish in the third round, and Martina fears the problem is that “Andy has lost confidence”.

Indeed, Martina believes Murray lost to Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the French Open because “he hesitated. At crucial moments he pulled back”.

And then, echoing a comment made by Pat Cash about Murray’s loss to Andy Roddick in last year’s Wimbledon semi-final, Martina says: “Andy’s problem is he plays a great defensive game but he can get stuck there too much.

“He needs to be more on the offensive rather than just react to what the opponent is doing. He needs to create, needs to take the initiative more. He is certainly good enough to get to the semi-final or the final. But I don’t think he has enough to win the tournament.”

Despite her misgivings Murray still features in Martina’s top five for the men’s title along with Federer, Rafael Nadal, Roddick and Robin Soderling but she adds the caveat: “Murray is the weakest link of the five.”

Then, not to crush British dreams, she holds out a little sliver of hope and says: “But he is British, it is Wimbledon.”

Murray was due to begin his campaign today against Czech Jan Hajek while Nadal was set to face Japan’s Kei Nishikori, with Martina saying the world No1 was “as high as a kite after the French Open and as healthy as he was when he won in 2008”.

Federer, though, is Martina’s top pick for the title even though the six-times Wimbledon champion suffered an almighty scare yesterday.

The Swiss — having lost to Soderling in the French semis and to Leyton Hewitt in the final at Halle last week — confessed he was “lucky” to come from two sets down to beat Alejandro Falla and avoid becoming only the third Wimbledon champion to lose on the opening day.

Martina says: “It is too soon to write off Roger. Last year people were writing off Roger after he lost the Australian Open. But then he won the French and Wimbledon and came within a couple of points of winning the US Open. Roger is still the favourite to win on grass.”

The player Federer has the most to fear, warns Martina, is the man he beat in last year’s final, and could meet in the semi-finals.

Roddick won easily yesterday and says Martina: “He leaves his soul on the court. I have a great mind to put money on him. He is playing better than a year ago.”

Martina finds it hard to see any surprises among the women but a Williams sisters final does not thrill her. “Yes, Serena and Venus have taken tennis to another level. And on grass the Williams sisters come through. I only hope it is not a sisters’ final.”

If someone is to break their dominance Martina senses it could be Sam Stosur, despite the Australian losing the French Open decider to Francesca Schiavone. She says: “Sam was nervous in the final but she is coming back and can be exceptional.”

As for British women, Martina’s comments are blunt. “Who knows? There is not a lot to go on.”

Our leading woman, Elena Baltacha, bowed out to Petra Martic yesterday despite serving for the match and there were also defeats for compatriots Mel South and Laura Robson.

A big problem for the British, feels Martina, is that to get its tennis right social change is necessary.

“I think that kids brought up in England have it too easy,” she says. “The hunger isn’t there. Unlike kids coming from Asia or Eastern Europe, for whom sport is the best way to get out of their country, there are many more other opportunities here. It’s almost too easy.”

And even if the kids could be motivated Martina warns that the world is very different to the one Fred Perry ruled in the 30s. “Now we have 200 countries that have players ranked in the top 500. It’s a lot more difficult to succeed and there are not as many places at the top for the countries that have always been there.”

Martina arrived at Wimbledon just four days after finishing her final radiation treatment for breast cancer.

There is something so measured about her that, even after she discovered the dreaded disease, she did not change her routine.

In March, three days before she had a tumour removed from her breast, she teamed up with Justine Henin to beat Steffi Graff and Lindsay Davenport in a charity event in Palm Springs. The next day she played ice hockey for the Aspen Mother Puckers and, less than two weeks after her operation, she was in Hawaii participating in the bike portion of Ironman triathlon relay.

She only went public about her cancer after that because she wanted to make sure other women do not make her mistake and forget to have regular check-ups.

“I waited until I had the time publicly to talk about it,” she says. “There would have been no point talking about it when I was doing a triathlon, would there?”

In December 2010, Martina Navratilova will climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. To make a donation visit www.laureus.com

      

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