Keith Elliott at Large: Deaton lays cards on table: 'My biggest fear is being a nobody. I would hate to think that people would just not know about me when I died'

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EVEN IN the humdrum world of table tennis, life imitates art (assuming you accept a tacky TV ad as art). The story so far: lissom child star Nicola Deaton, no longer a tot unable to reach those dinky shots that just creep over the net has just left school (6 GSCEs, including one taken at the British Consulate in Sweden during the World Championships) and become a table tennis professional.

Lurking in the foreground is a larger-than-life figure: her millionaire father and manager Colin, a slimmer (though not much) version of Bernard Manning. He even talks like him. Dad, who runs a sports promotion company (celebrities from Ian Botham to Graham Taylor), is her mentor and attends all her matches. In fact, Nicola won't play unless he is there.

But how will Papa react as his once-diminutive daughter, blossoming into an attractive young woman, discovers about Life and Boys? Will she fulfil her dreams, become famous and win the MBE? The turning point may well be 1 August, when Nicola, then 17, takes her driving test. If she passes, her sponsors will give her a new car. It is, of course, a Renault Clio.

The European Table Tennis Championships start at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena today. Nicole (sorry, Nicola), England's No 6, is a member of the women's team who have high hopes of a medal, though individually she doesn't expect to get far. 'I need to get more spin on my serves, and build up my experience of playing at the highest level.'

But make no mistake: Nicola Deaton intends to be a star. 'My biggest fear is being a nobody. I would hate to think that people would just not know about me when I died, that I had left nothing behind.' Wow. That and an MBE too.

But this is no cold-hearted starlet talking. Nicola, despite all the benefits that her father's wealth have brought (such as her own table tennis room in Chesterfield), is refreshingly unspoilt and still starry-eyed about meeting Famous People. She's slightly amazed that Suzanne Dando chats to her like an equal. As we talk at Butlin's Southcoast World, her words falling over themselves like a newborn kitten, she keeps glancing over to the boxing ring being erected in the vast ballroom. Chris Eubank will perform later in the evening, and she's awestruck by the thought that she might meet him. 'I love boxing. I get up at 3 am to watch the championship fights from America. Chris is one of my heroes.'

The idea of this sylph-like woman (5ft 4in and 7 st) addicted to two giants knocking the gumshields out of each other is not as strange as it seems. She plays table tennis like a boxer - tap, whack, whack, whack - attacking rather than defending, seeking to win by dominating rather than waiting for her opponent's mistakes. She has still not quite overcome the telling criticism, made of her when she was 13, that she is 'more afraid of losing than pleased with winning'. But she's working on it.

Table tennis has been her life since the day nine years ago when she was dragged along on a QE2 world cruise. Her father, then Derbyshire county table tennis captain, was working on the ship, playing the fat cats and putting on exhibition matches. 'Rather than watching the cabaret, she wanted to learn table tennis,' Colin recalls.

She was so tiny the table was at eye-height, and for years, she grew slower than a bonsai tree. It brought her hated nicknames such as the 'Pocket Rocket'. But though she couldn't reach the area around the net, she still won the county under-11 championships, aged eight.

Nicola went on to take the first national under-11 championships. She made the Guinness Book of Records at 13 when she became the youngest-ever senior international, representing England against Sweden. She appeared on Blue Peter and Motormouth. And in 1990, she won the English mixed doubles with Chen Xinhua, making her the youngest holder of a senior national title.

Chen became her coach, and predicted she would become European champion. But after two years, table tennis politics drove him to the Bundesliga. Nicola still misses him. 'He was phenomenal. I was distraught when he left and considered giving up the game. But now we write and speak on the phone, and I hope he will be back.'

Meanwhile, she trains three hours a day and plays whenever she can against stronger players such as Desmond Douglas. In her local league, she is constantly meeting male players - who find it hard to take defeat by this slip of a girl. 'They say I should be at home playing with my dolls,' she says fiercely. It's not the best tactic to undermine her.

But Nicola is well on the road to stardom. A championship bat bearing her name comes out next month. She's contracted for a pounds 25,000 series of exhibitions and shows for Butlin's throughout the year.

(Photograph omitted)