Tennis: Climbing the foothills: John Roberts on the task facing James Baily, the Australian Open junior champion, as he joins the senior tennis ranks today

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The Independent Online
A WILD CARD entry into a satellite tournament at the David Lloyd Club in Eastbourne today would appear suitably down-to-earth for James Baily as Britain's Australian Open junior champion steps on to the perilous nursery slopes of the senior game. On the other hand, Baily may conclude that the atmosphere in Melbourne a week last Sunday was low-key by comparison.

While winning the boys' final at Flinders Park on the day before his 18th birthday, Baily only had to contend with his opponent, soaring temperatures, the distraction of a PA announcer at a regatta on the nearby Yarra River and Stefan Edberg's noisy Swedish supporters pausing to rehearse their chants near Court One en route to the Centre Court.

But as soon as the last point was won, Baily began to understand what is meant by expectation in British tennis. His itinerary, which previously could have blown unnoticed down the main street of his Hampshire village, became a matter of national importance.

The fact is, no British male tennis player has achieved anything of major significance since the end of the Fred Perry era, 57 years ago. Consequently, any sign of life is calculated to send the media potty. Baily cannot be cocooned from this. It is an essential part of the challenge he faces for having the audacity to show potential.

What needs to be emphasised is the enormity of Baily's task. While continuing to compete as a junior in the year's remaining Grand Slams, the French, Wimbledon and United States championships, he has now joined the frantic scramble for computer ranking points necessary to play on the ATP Tour.

Though a handful of players tend to dominate the majors, and the vast wealth that goes with them, the depth of talent in the men's game is so great that qualification for premier tour events is a fierce competition in itself.

Mark Miles, the ATP Tour's chief executive, recently made an interesting observation. 'In the United States,' he said, 'people might not know an American who is ranked No 50 in the world. But in a lot of countries, a guy ranked No 50 is the best tennis player in their country. He is a celebrity.'

No doubt he is, and we in Britain would love to have one. Producing players, or even a player, in the top 50 has long been the nation's goal, never mind dreams of a Wimbledon champion.

Another note of caution: both Baily and Jamie Delgado, the 15- year-old Briton who was a semi-finalist in the boys' event in Melbourne, are predominently groundstroke players in the modern mode. Even if they develop into substantial players, it is possible that they will be less successful on the fast lawns of the All England Club than on medium-paced rubberised concrete courts, such as those at the Australian Open and the United States Open, or on the slower clay courts of the French Open.

Stephen Shaw, the coach who guides Delgado and who persuaded Baily to play on and join them when he was close to abandoning the sport a year ago, described Baily's success in Melbourne as 'a great stepping-stone'.

A stepping-stone is only useful if it leads to others. As Shaw said: 'We have had boys who have not made the transition from the juniors to the seniors quickly enough. We don't want James struggling round the tour for four years.'

Shaw, 30, has first-hand experience of the tribulations which can confront players trying to make the grade. After sampling the American collegiate circuit on a tennis scholarship with the University of Alabama, he made good use of the British satellite circuit and his subsequent results on the tour earned him a world ranking of No 88 in 1985. Four years later, when Shaw was Britain's No 4, behind Jeremy Bates, Andrew Castle and Chris Bailey in 1989, Baily was the No 1 at Under-14 level.

Satellite tournaments are organised by national associations under the auspices of the International Tennis Federation. Each circuit comprises three legs, each with a singles draw of 32, followed by a masters event. Only the 24 players who qualify for the masters week are eligible to have their circuit points converted into ATP Tour ranking points. Four circuit points convert into one ATP Tour point, of which a maximum of 50 can be won by a single player over the four-week period.

The circuit offers dollars 50,000 ( pounds 35,000) in prize-money for singles and doubles. The singles winner each week receives dollars 1,625, the runner-up dollars 1,125, and first-round losers leave with dollars 146.88.

Baily was allocated one of the four wild cards into the main draw at Eastbourne on the strength of his success in Melbourne and because the satellite circuit is being played on home territory (Eastbourne, Bramhall in Cheshire, Telford, and Coventry for the masters) and is organised by the Lawn Tennis Association. In the first round he plays Robert Eriksson, a 21-year-old Swede ranked No 369.

Delgado received a wild card into the pre-qualifying competition at Eastbourne. He was defeated in the second round by the more experienced Colin Beecher, a 22-year-old from Kent.

Satellites may be the starting point for professionals, but they hold no promise of a gentle introduction. Jeremy Bates, the British No 1, won the circuit last year, and Chris Wilkinson, from Southampton, was the runner-up. Wilkinson, who will be defending his points against hungry competitors from 20 nations, is joined in the main draw by Mark Petchey and Danny Sapsford, two fellow British Davis Cup players, and Andrew Foster and Andrew Richardson add to the home challenge.

One grade higher than the satellites are the ATP Tour's challenger events, with prize-money ranging from dollars 50,000 to dollars 100,000. Mark Miles describes the challenger circuit as 'a kind of minor league'. Though current top 10 players are excluded, and those ranked from 11 to 50 require a special dispensation to enter, some familiar names are apt to make an appearance, 'playing down' for money and points between engagements in the megabuck tournaments.

The scale is difficult from minor to major, but on the positive side the emergence of Baily may have eased some of the weight of expectation on Delgado. The hope is that other British juniors will be inspired to join them and share the load.

(Photograph omitted)

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