Tuesday, 3 July 2018

1986 Wimbledon: Castle v Wilander

England's Andrew Castle pushed Mats Wilander all the way in their second round match at Wimbledon in 1986. But he failed to build upon the initial flashes of promise he showed on that day.

After spending more than four years at Wichita State University, 22-year-old Andrew Castle was keen to make an impression during the five-week LTA satellite tour in the spring of 1986. “The American college system teaches you that losing is no good to nobody,” Castle stated. “Winning is everything. It is the only attitude for a professional. You learn to win or get out.”

Winning over £1,000 during the spring circuit, the progress of Castle was encouraging. A finalist in the BHS tournament at the Cumberland Club, and a semi-finalist at the Nagoya tournament in April, already the English press were circling, desperate to find a new star in the sport. Despite being ranked as low as world number 372 in June, he was already being linked with a possible Davis Cup call-up for the July fixture against Australia.

“Andrew is fresh, buoyant and keen to learn,” Davis Cup skipper Paul Hutchins enthused. “The thing that has delighted me is that he has come back from the States and been integrated successfully into the British system and he can only get better. He's improved very quickly and although I can't yet say whether he will be in the cup side to face Australia he is most definitely in with a shout.”

Wildcards followed for both Queen’s and Wimbledon, Castle impressing on his run to the last 16 in the traditional warm-up event to SW19. He did withdraw from the Bristol Trophy after injuring his shoulder, but was able to take his place in the first round for the 100th staging of Wimbledon.

With former University room-mate Mikael Pernfors recently reaching the French Open final, there appeared to be compelling evidence for Castle’s respect for the US system. “We shared rooms in seedy hotels and even shared a pancake for breakfast sometimes because we were broke.” Castle seemed hungry for success, as were the English media.

Wimbledon 1986 would provide an appetiser, but sadly the main meal failed to arrive. A first round victory over Australian Brod Dyke set up Castle’s famous match against Sweden’s Mats Wilander, the 7-6 7-6 6-3 win leading David Powell in the Times to write about the “welcome injection of hope for the British game.” The hype that was gradually surrounding Castle would go off the scale after his next match.

The chances of Castle causing an upset against number two seed Wilander were slim. After all, the Englishman was still wet behind the ears, ranked 285th in the world, and was playing a man who had already won four grand slam singles events (including two on grass in Australia). At least Castle could rely on the fervent support of the home crowd watching on the old number one court.

He would provide the partisan following with a great deal of entertainment, also giving the watching millions at home an extra bonus during their Thursday evening television viewing. Alas it would be another tale of a glorious British failure, yet the press and public lapped it up, clinging on to the dream that in Castle we had found the one.

Taking the first set 6-4, Castle struggled in the following set, broken in the seventh game and saving two set points when trailing 3-5. Yet he showed signs of toughness when breaking Wilander in the next game, and took the set to a tie-break. Sadly, two double faults saw Castle lose the tie-break 7-3, and it looked as if normal service was about to be resumed.

Castle wouldn’t go away, though. Taking the third set tie-break without losing a point, unbelievably the young man from Taunton stood on the brink of glory. But Castle was entering uncharted territory, and knew he would probably need to win the fourth set if the unthinkable was about to become a reality.

Although he had trained at boxer Pat Cowdell’s Birmingham gym after the spring tour, losing the fourth set 6-4 would examine the fitness of the inexperienced Castle. “I knew I would probably not win the fifth because I was just too tired,” Castle later admitted. “I’ve never played five sets before.”

Castle may have had the backing of the crowd, but he simply had nothing left to give. “It was the most nerve-racking match I have ever played but the support from the crowd was fantastic. You are aware of this great bank of people and I am just sorry I could not get a couple of games in the final set.”

After three hours and 45 minutes of absorbing drama, Wilander got over the line. But he had survived one hell of a scare. “Andrew has a great talent,” the Swede said. “I knew he was quick and could serve well but he surprised me with the quality of his shots.” Castle knew that his chance had gone. “I had him on the ropes and worried.”

Wilander was not alone in his praise. “Andrew produced one of the most heartening performances I have seen from a British player at Wimbledon for many years,” Hutchins said, as the possibility of Castle making a Davis Cup debut increased. The press were also quick to board the Castle bandwagon.

“British fans have been starved of success for too long to ignore the arrival, at last, of a real hope tor the future,” wrote Ian Barnes in the Express. “He showed that British tennis is alive and kicking,” Nigel Clarke added in the Mirror. Not bad for a player who had been walking the streets until 2.30am on the Monday of the event trying to find accommodation.

Castle would make his Davis Cup debut against Australia, and although he lost both his singles matches, his star was rising. At the start of 1987 he became the British number one, and in the same year he won the national championship, reached the third round of the US Open, and the final of the Australian Open mixed doubles. But the strain of expectation was already beginning to show.

“This last year has been an eye-opener,” Castle stated in June 1987. “The press go wild when you win and, if you don’t win every match you play, then ask: ‘How come you had such a disappointing match?’” In short, Castle felt he had been built up by the media before being knocked down on a regular basis.

In 1988, Castle reached his highest ranking of 80, and would represent Great Britain in the Olympic Games. However, living up to the early promise he demonstrated in that Wilander match proved impossible. His antics in the summer of 86 could have been the stepping stone to greater things; it proved to be a millstone around his neck. He had set the bar too high.

By 1992 his career in tennis was over, on court at least. Never afraid to speak his mind – in 1990 he had been fined for protesting against the Poll Tax at the national championships – a television career beckoned.

“Castle will forever be remembered for his protest, not for his tennis, which was a touch of dedication away from being top class,” wrote Andrew Longmore in the Times. Castle was also refreshingly honest. “I could’ve been a lot better than I was. I wasn’t prepared to pay the price.” So the hunt for a British star went on.

1 comment:

  1. Great read as always, it's easy to forget sometimes just how barren things were supporting British players back then when anybody winning a round or two during a Grand Slam was seen as our biggest hope.