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Bittersweet climax a sign of the times for unsung battler Ward

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Originally published on: 16/06/10 11:49

It was a borderline-criminal way to end things, but James Ward will never tell it like that. There he had sat on Devonshire Park’s Centre Court, moments after seeing two match points come and go against Feliciano Lopez, the world No.30 and second seed for the men’s draw at the AEGON International.

No matter. He was still a break to the good and, leading 6-3 5-4, would serve for the match. He would get another shot at the biggest win of his career. He would – finally – get a chance to show the British public his true worth.

And then, Lopez ambled around the umpire’s chair to offer his hand and retire. “He just said he did some weights yesterday and he’s obviously woken up with a sore shoulder today,” Ward said, “and he doesn’t want to push it too much.”

Lopez is fortunate that the four years Ward spent training in Spain was time enough to earn the 23-year-old’s respect. “He’d called the trainer on a little bit earlier, and in the previous game he looked like he was struggling with his serve a little bit, giving it a little bit less than he was in the first set.”

“He’s obviously got Wimbledon coming up next week so he needs to be careful,” he added, with the slightest hint of remorse in his tone.

While Lopez’s attentions are now fixed on SW19, James Ward will not be playing at Wimbledon this year as things stand. His decision to accept a main-draw wildcard in Eastbourne meant giving up a place among the field at the Bank of England Club, where this week’s qualifiers’ tournament for the Championships is in full swing.

“I was given a wildcard into qualifying, which I was grateful for, but I was also offered the opportunity to play in the main draw here – which you don’t always get,” he said. “With my ranking as it is at the moment, I thought I had to pick this.”

His current lowly position at No.342 is one of the ATP Tour’s harsh realities. Less than a year ago he was inside the world’s top 200 following a fine summer season sparked by a fine Challenger Series title win in Sarasota, Florida. After coming through qualifying for the main draw he beat US veteran Vince Spadea on his way to the final, where he edged past Carsten Ball. Until yesterday, he viewed that as his best result.

From there he made his Wimbledon main draw debut: a baptism of fire, playing 2009’s form player Fernando Verdasco in the day’s late match on Court 1. He lost in straight sets. “It was obviously nerve-racking the first set, but it obviously wasn’t as bad as it was maybe looked upon.”

But, with his potential Davis Cup debut against Poland in Liverpool just days away, he learned that his season was over. “Two days before I was set to play he told me ‘you’ve got glandular fever, and it’s best you don’t play.’”

It was another blow for Ward in his bid to capture the British public’s imagination. Along with that Wimbledon loss, his other moments in the spotlight have also come in defeat – a three-setter against Marat Safin at Queen’s in 2008, the seven-hour Davis Cup play-off with Chris Eaton that was met with both amazement and scorn, and his part in Great Britain’s Davis Cup defeat to Lithuania, a result that overshadowed his opening rubber victory when his Team GB debut finally arrived.

The virus left him sidelined for almost six months. “The first three months you can’t do anything – you’ve got to take blood tests every couple of weeks to see if anything changes. The last two months practicing for 30, 40 minutes a day. It’s frustrating – you want to be playing more.”

Eventually his frustration got the better of him. “I took a gamble, went out to Chennai first week of the year before the Australian Open, passed qualies there and lost to Marcel Granollers in three sets, which for my first tournament back after six months wasn’t too bad.“

From there he headed to Australia to try his hand in qualifying, but lost out to Illya Marchenko in the second round. “Maybe it wasn’t the best decision, but you want to be involved in the best tournaments in the world,” he admitted. “I’d played Australia the year before, so I wanted to again.”

As his match tightness returned, Ward’s priorities changed. Rather than just turning up for the big parties, he is now intent on becoming one of the game’s raconteurs. For that he needs to push his way back up the rankings and beyond 187. He needs to graduate from the Futures ranks and be playing at ATP World Tour level on a regular basis. To work himself into a position where the choices he makes about his career make themselves, rather than being a string of either/or calls.

When the time came to make this latest decision – Eastbourne or Roehampton – Ward simply did the math. “I’ve just lost 80 points from Sarasota three weeks ago, which dropped me to where I am at the moment.” So what was his victory over Lopez worth, in the cold currency of the rankings? “20 points.” A win over Rainer Schuettler in today’s second round would take the tally to 45, potentially taking his ranking back inside the top 300.

Of course, it might attract the attention of those with their hands on the All England Club’s final few wildcards. “You never know – you never know your luck,” he said with a wry smile. “It depends – it’s in their hands. I can’t comment for them but I beat Feli, who’s No.30 in the world and No.2 seed here, and now I’ve got a chance against Schuettler, so if I can beat him then…”

He daren’t finish the sentence. Too many times Ward has had to tell people where he stands in the tennis world without getting the chance to show them. Better that others give him the recognition he deserves.

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