O'Brien suffers Wimbledon exit to Clijsters

Reg Brace David Sherwood put two weeks of torment behind him to make a successful Wimbledon singles debut yesterday by beating the Brazilian Ricardo Mello 6-3 6-4 6-4 and record a victory which closed a gap of 32 years in terms of Yorkshire tennis.

The 25-year-old Sheffield player caught tonsillitis a fortnight ago, did not eat for four days and lost nearly a stone in weight. "It left a question mark over my fitness," he said. "I had a week's training in Sheffield before coming down to London last Friday.

"I think three sets today helped. If it had gone a bit further I don't really know if I would have struggled or what. My first serve was starting to fade in the third set and in my last three service games he had a lot of chances which he didn't have in the first two sets.

"I wouldn't say I was worried about the possibility of having to go into an extra set. But with everything that has happened I thought it might be an issue. Luckily it wasn't."

With Yorkshire's Katie O'Brien losing predictably, but gallantly, to the former world No 1 Kim Clijsters, Sherwood's victory sent historians scurrying into the files to find the last time that a Yorkshire man reached the second round of the singles at Wimbledon.

The answer for tennis anoraks in the county is 1973, the year when Roger Taylor – another Sheffield player of course – reached his third semi-final in The Championships.

Gary Henderson, who is coaching Sherwood at the Hallamshire club in Sheffield along with Jason Torpey, was beaten by Guy Forget in the first round at Wimbledon in 1995 and Jonny Marray was a first round casualty last year.

Sherwood's parents John and Sheila – medal winners in the l968 Mexico Olympics – were in the Yorkshire contingent around Court Six as Sherwood added lustre to what is becoming a comeback year for him.

Axed by the Lawn Tennis Association last year because of disagreements over his attitude to training he returned home to Sheffield to pick up the pieces of what looked ominously like a shattered career.

Faced with the choice of abandoning professional tennis or taking a hard look at what had gone wrong and trying to start all over again he took the positive approach helped by his parents and the coaching team of Henderson and Torpey.

The result was selection for the British Davis Cup team against Israel in March, and a partnership with Andrew Murray which won the crucial doubles against all the odds.

Now, success in the singles at Wimbledon. He had played doubles four times previously and lost all four matches in the first round.

Yesterday he faced an opponent who is ranked 54 in the world as opposed to his own status of 260, and never looked like losing.

Admittedly, Mello is a player more at home on hard courts than grass but Sherwood knew he would have to play well to close the gap of over 200 places between them.

This he did with style, taking a grip on the match from the start and, apart from one or two wobbles in the third set, never releasing it.

Mello, a neat and efficient left-hander, always threatened to take a more assertive role in the rallies but he was denied by Sherwood's power, particularly at the net where the Yorkshireman picked off volleys with relentless force and accuracy.

Two service breaks earned Sherwood the first set, and one break turned the second. In the third set, with victory in sight, he faltered.

Perhaps it was the tonsillitis factor, or the prospect of a significant win, but suddenly he was fending off break points to retain his early 2-0 lead. After double faulting on his first match point there was an element of relief when he clinched the second with a triumphant volley.

O'Brien, 19, was beaten 6-2 6-3 by Clijsters but by no means disgraced.

Her robust striking of the ball brought admiring applause from the crowd around Court Two, and a stubborn refusal to yield was evident to the last point.

A bright future still beckons for the Hessle girl – while this performance emphasises that Clijsters is on the way back after spending most of 2004 on the sidelines with injuries.

O'Brien will bank a first round losers' cheque for 7,560, doubling her earnings for the season, and easily the biggest sum of her career. It's tough at this end of the tour and if you make a profit it's a big achievement for you," said O'Brien.

"Everybody knows that opportunities like this can only help us to get better and make life on the tour a little bit easier.

"It's lucrative if you succeed as Kim has to become one of the best players in the world. But for the rest of us it is a tough, tough world."

Jonny Marray is the next Yorkshire player to move into the Wimbledon spotlight.

He meets the Belgian Xavier Malisse today hoping to banish the spectre of his debut a year ago when he squandered three match points in losing to the Slocak Republic's Karol Beck.