Satellites provide path to the stars

Mike Rowbottom meets the tennis hopefuls on the hard road to the ATP Tour
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The Independent Online
Last Sunday was going as well as it could have done for Denis van Uffelen - until it came to the question of transport.

Belgium's 16th-ranked tennis player, reconstructing his career after an elbow operation, had just earned himself pounds 1,000 by winning the second event of the LTA Men's Indoor Satellite at Chigwell.

Now he needed to get to Eastbourne, where the third of the circuit's four stages was to take place. And there was no car to take him. He left, clutching his racquets and the knowledge that it was 21 stops on the Underground to Victoria, where he could get the train down to the South Coast. To say he looked dejected would be unfair. Resigned was more the word.

For the band of players currently sojourning between Bramhall, Chigwell, Eastbourne and Croydon, the LTA satellite event is a stop on the line which leads, ideally, to two further stations: Challenger events - and then the big terminus of the ATP Tour.

To get on board at the satellite stage - which operates all over the world - players need to be between 200 and 600 in the world rankings; Challenger events involve those between 60 and 250.

The player coming out on top in the current satellite circuit can earn up to 50 ATP points, which could move him 50 places up the rankings. Patrick Hughesman, of the LTA, reckons that 10 per cent of those at satellite level go on to higher things. It is not a huge proportion, and those that make it tend to take a couple of years to work their way through.

Such was the career path of Tim Henman - to pluck a name out of the air - who began playing satellite tournaments in the autumn of 1993 and made a final appearance in February '95, rising in the process from 774th to 167th in the world.

"When I first saw Tim at 17, he came across as being very thin and spindly," Hughesman recalled. "But he has filled out a lot. He has a powerful build now."

With Wimbledon four months away, Henmania is already building up for 1997. But Hughesman recalls that, at the time Britain's current No 1 was starting on the satellite scene, all the media attention was directed at his school-mate, James Baily, the winner of the 1993 Australian Open junior title, who has since dropped out of the sport.

Henman's rise to fame has been inspirational, rather than daunting, for another of his old mates from Reeds School in Cobham: Jamie Delgado, who reached the Chigwell final before succumbing 6-3, 6-4 to Van Uffelen's power-serving game.

Delgado, 20 today, had the mixed blessing of achieving notable success at a young age, becoming the first Briton to win a title at the Orange Bowl international junior championships in Florida six years ago. At 14, he was among the top 10 juniors in the world. Now ranked around 300 in the world, this fine natural stroke player is having to work hard to follow in his schoolmate's footsteps. That he has only grown to 5ft 8in means that task is harder for him.

As Van Uffelen blasted down ace after ace on to the fast carpet surface in Chigwell on Sunday, it seemed that Delgado would need to put in some serious work in the weights room to allow his talents to shine. Delgado, however, remains optimistic. "When I won in Florida, obviously people did expect me to do well," he said. "But that's not my problem. I am very close to Challenger level now.

"Seeing Tim and Greg Rusedski do so well has a positive effect on players like myself. It inspires us to try and get to where they are. I often practice with Tim and Greg at Queen's Club, and they are both very helpful.

"Tim is very sensible, and he has given me a lot of advice on strategy and how to cope with various experiences."

As Van Uffelen and Delgado strive to move onwards and upwards in Eastbourne this week, the key strategy has to be one of survival. Delgado, at least, is likely to get a wild card to play at Wimbledon. He will know as well as anybody that, if he can produce his best tennis there, it will do more for him than 50 ATP points.