Bisham boys becoming men

With a Briton rated at No 3 in the junior world rankings and a clutch of promising players, British tennis is at last emerging from its dark age. John Roberts reports
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The Independent Online
Such has been the casualty rate among fledgling British tennis players that the sight of one placed as high as No 3 in the world junior rankings was bound to cause much blinking and rubbing of eyes.

It was not a blip on the International Tennis Federation's computer. Martin Lee, a left-hander from Worthing, Sussex, who marks his 18th birthday on Saturday, did indeed end 1995 in that exalted position.

A sense of proportion is recommended, however. We should bear in mind in particular what befell James Baily immediately after the Hampshire player became the last Briton to be hailed as a prodigy on the strength of winning the Australian Open junior singles title on the eve of his 18th birthday in 1993.

Given a clear indication of how ludicrous media expectation can be - he was asked by a radio interviewer how it felt to be called the next Fred Perry - Baily wilted when attempting to make a transition to the rigours of the professional tour and was quickly lost to the game.

Baily was not the only British junior to make an impression in Melbourne on that occasion. The 15-year-old Jamie Delgado was a semi-finalist, reviving memories of the hyperbole from some quarters which accompanied his victory in the Under-14 Championship at the Orange Bowl in Florida towards the end of 1991.

Delgado, although diminutive for the power-driven modern game, continues to work in the hope of breaking clear of the satellite and challenger circuits. He stands at No 18 in Britain and No 562 in the world.

It was evident three years ago that Baily and Delgado had benefited from travelling together for junior tournaments during an eight-month period prior to the Australian Open, when both were coached by Stephen Shaw. Delgado made the point that they worked as a team, Baily adding that they fed off each other's progress.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Lee's elevation is that he has not advanced in isolation, but is symptomatic of a general improvement in the standard of the nation's junior boys.

Lee, it may be remembered, won last year's Wimbledon boys' doubles title in partnership with James Trotman, a 16-year-old from Ipswich. The Under- 14 squad of Simon Dickson, Mark Hilton, Nick Greenhouse and Alan Mackin won the World Junior Team Championship in Japan and the European Team Championship in Spain, and Dickson, from Stockport, was runner-up at the Orange Bowl.

These players, and others in the junior system, are showing promise at an opportune time. The men's game in Britain appears to be on the up, the arrival of the Canadian-born Greg Rusedski coinciding with confirmation that Tim Henman, the national champion, is an international contender of genuine potential (both are in the world's top 100).

David Lloyd has imbued the Davis Cup squad with optimism and, in an endeavour to secure a better future, the Lawn Tennis Association's training and development department has been streamlined specifically for the professional game with the intention of plugging holes through which many a prospect has disappeared.

At grass roots, the emergence of Lee and his fellows reflects well on the Rover LTA School at Bisham Abbey, although nurturing talent has proved to be a slow, difficult process. "Eighteen months ago I was so frustrated I felt like jumping off the end of the bridge," admitted Ian Barclay, who coaches the Bisham boys. "We virtually hadn't achieved anything in the first two and a half years."

Barclay, of course, ranks among an elite group of mentors who have experienced the thrill of a protege's triumph at Wimbledon, Pat Cash offering his thanks in spectacular fashion in 1987 by clambering over spectators to embrace the coach.

Back on his home territory to coax the British boys through junior events leading up to the Australian Open, which starts next Monday, Barclay recounted the gradual change of fortune which emanated from the courts of Bisham.

"It all started in January last year, when Simon Dickson won his first international tournament," he said. "Then one thing led to another, and they all started winning. It's the same old story: it's as easy to catch the winning disease as the losing disease.

"Martin Lee started to win tournaments which I thought beyond his ability, and he kept doing it. He just kept getting better and better and working harder. Unfortunately, James Trotman was out for six months with glandular fever, so that put an end to that. And the previous 14 months he'd had stress fractures in both feet. We'd had all sorts of problems."

Trotman, having recovered for Wimbledon, continued his progress by winning the national Under-18 title, in Lee's absence, at Nottingham in August and reached the third round of the juniors at the United States Open in September.

"We have three boys at the school who are world class," Barclay enthused. "You don't say that unless they've really proved themselves. They've been giving away age and strength every tournament and still coming up. So I was sort of staggered, but not foolish enough to say that we're anywhere near there yet."

Although Barclay had heard that British players tended to be late developers, he was astonished to discover the extent to which it was true. "I think British kids are still growing when everybody else has finished," he said. "I think some of our boys are still growing at 18, 19, it could be 20, which is most unusual. They are trying to catch up all the time, and junior tennis is getting tougher and tougher.

"All the boys, except for Simon Dickson, were very immature, physically and mentally. They seemed to be light years behind the Europeans and the rest of the world. The Europeans are just huge. There are guys in the Under-14s this year well in excess of 6ft 2in and 6ft 3in.

"Martin and James are just on 6ft tall and weigh 10st something. They're playing guys who are 12st and 13st every time they walk on the court, so they've been out-powered and out-physiqued. Even in the final of the Wimbledon juniors, they walked out looking like two little boys playing two men.

"It's something we've had to put up with and tried not to worry about. It's the way you handle it. It's a matter of being patient. In the past, everybody's been trying to sprint before they could crawl. There's no way my guys will do that. I've said to them that it's so much better to be king of the junior palace before you move into the senior palace. It means then that you'll always be the kids' peers, and anything that comes from underneath you is never going to be a worry.

"What used to happen with the British boys, because they were unsuccessful most of the time, is they'd have one flash-in-the-pan win and then disappear. The way I've always worked is that you stick in there, and if you're No 1 seed you've got to bear the brunt of the pressure, and that's what Martin's got to do. He was No 1 seed in tournaments in America and he handled it very well, but he's got to learn to handle it on a day-to-day basis."

The self-belief and self-motivation Barclay is aiming for would be apparent the moment his pupils stepped on a court - "it's like putting a sprinter in the stable with a draught horse" - and he is certain that this is the bonus of success as juniors.

"There are no short cuts, it's just a matter of getting out there and doing the work," he said. "We've done so much travelling I don't think they'd even recognise their parents, and I think if they went home their dog would bite them."

Crueller reactions have been known.