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Rain, rain and even more rain

London July 3. Never is the journey from hope to despair quite as short as it is in Wimbledon. Mood can switch from one to the other in the time it takes for Greg Rusedski to dump an easy put-away volley into the net, in the time it takes for seemingly blue skies to be replaced by a massive dark pocket of clouds with a huge black underbelly.

In the event, as rain turned what might have been a glorious July day into what looked like a wet, gloomy January day swept by Siberian winds, thousands of spectators and dozens of anxious players spent most part of the early afternoon swinging from hope to hopelessness on Wednesday.

At least twice during the early part of the afternoon the covers came off as the sun managed to escape the claws of the all-consuming dark clouds. But each time, no sooner than the wonderfully manicured grass courts became visible another spell of rain arrived.

So, for fans hoping to watch the match of the day _ the men's quarterfinal between Tim Henman and Andre Sa _ billed as the second big England-Brazil clash this summer season, it was a long and frustrating wait.

There is only so much you can do waiting for play to begin. Maybe pick up a punnet of the most expensive strawberries this side of the Ritz in Paris or try a glass of Pimms or a bottle of beer.

And when it is raining, you cannot even hope to sit on what is popularly known as the Henman Hill and watch BBC's telecast of recorded matches on the big screen, although quite a number of fans actually do that, with an umbrella in hand.

And the rainfall pattern here is nothing like you might have experienced in India. It doesn't pour for a few hours and then stop for a number of hours. It is a sickly spitting rain that can go on for three hours, then stop for 30 minutes to make way for brilliant sunshine, before arriving again on the back of a monstrous pack of dark clouds.

``This is Wimbledon and the top players know how to handle the rain breaks,'' Boris Becker, the three-time champion who played in seven finals here, was saying on BBC television talking to Sue Barker.

Becker said he was a touch disappointed on Sunday watching Germany lose to Brazil in the World Cup final.

``But at home the celebrations were as if they'd won. We were not the favourites, and yes, we lost. But getting to the final was a big thing,'' said Becker.

Talking about the presence of three South American players in the men's quarterfinals _ Andre Sa of Brazil, Nicolas Lapentti of Eduador and David Nalbandian from Argentina _ Becker said that the principal reason was baseliners were feeling more comfortable here this year.

``Maybe the courts are different, the ball bounces higher this year and the balls are heavier too. This gives the clay courters a chance,'' he said.

Is this the end for Seles

Will Seles come back? Has Wimbledon seen the last of Monica Seles? Or, will the great lady be back here again past her 29th birthday to try and bring off a feat that appears less and less likely as the years go on _ winning the only major that has eluded her.

These questions crossed your mind as Seles, beaten 7-5, 7-6 (4) by Justine Henin, last year's losing finalist, departed from the No.2 court late on Tuesday evening.

Even in those unforgettable days when she had the world at her feet, in the first two years of the 90s decade, Seles was never quite as comfortable on the grass courts of Wimbledon as she was on almost every other surface on which this game is played.

In between showers, Steffi Graf outplayed Seles in the 1992 final here, the only championship match that she has ever made at Wimbledon. Since then, Seles has failed to get past the quarterfinals.

There is no doubt in this writer's mind that Seles would have, by now, won a Wimbledon title, if not two or three, had Hamburg-1993 not happened. Even if her game was not quite as tailor-made for this surface as was Martina Navratilova's or Graf's, no woman in the last quarter of a century showed the sort of will to win that was Seles's greatest virtue in her prime.

It was the will of a supreme champion, a competitor beyond compare and the manner in which she dismissed Steffi Graf in Melbourne in January 1993 to win her third straight Australian Open established her as a player who was well on the road to becoming an all-time great, if not the greatest ever.

Three months on, Gunther Parch, an unemployed lathe operator arrived on court in Hamburg with a meat-cleaving knife, and the world turned upside down for Seles.

Now, of course, Wimbledon is a distant dream that might disappear in the horizon before this season is out for Seles, who has not won a major title since she brought up her fourth Australian Open triumph in January 1996.

``No, no, no. That doesn't cross my mind _ retirement _ after a match like this,'' Seles said on Tuesday evening. "I am just more disappointed at the match at this stage, and that's what I worry about.''

Yet, she has been hinting at the possibility of retirement off and on, and the day when she decides to go may not be far off.

Asked if she would be able to reconcile herself to the fact that this is one title that got away from her, Seles said, "oh yeah, definitely that could be the case. I am fine with that. But, you know, I know I gave it the best shot that I could. And that's the best that I can do.''

Nobody can say that Monica Seles ever, perhaps even once, gave it anything but her best shot on the court. What a remarkable player and what a special woman!

The results: Men: doubles: quarterfinals: 5-Jonas Bjorkman (Swe)/Todd Woodbridge (Aus) bt 3-Mahesh Bhupathi (Ind)/Max Mirnyi (Blr) 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.

Women: singles: quarterfinals: 6-Justine Henin (Bel) bt 4-Monica Seles (U.S.) 7-5, 7-6 (4).

Fourth round: 3-Jennifer Capriati (U.S.) bt Eleni Daniilidou (Gre) 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.

Mauresmo ahead When rain interrupted play for the second time, Amelie Mauresmo of France had opened up a 5-2 first-set lead over Jennifer Capriati, the third seed, in a women's quarterfinal match at Wimbledon. In the other quarterfinal, Serena Williams held her first service game and Daniela Hantuchova was up 15-0 on serve in the second game at the time of going to press.

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