Tennis: Delgado ill at ease under the spotlight: Paul Hayward reports on the promise and the burden of one of Britain's best young tennis hopes

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SIXTEEN years old and stuck with the title of Britain's most promising young player. Jamie Delgado was knocked out of an LTA satellite tournament at Bracknell yesterday, but a bigger threat to his career is the country turning him old before he has had a chance to be young.

Delgado has been under intense scrutiny since he won the Orange Bowl for under-14's in Florida in 1991, and that level of interest only increased after he reached the semi- finals of the Australian juniors earlier this year. 'Sometimes,' Stephen Shaw, his coach, said yesterday, 'I think he'd be a lot better off if he could play without people jumping up and down.'

Shaw has constructed a cordon around Delgado that is reminiscent of Alex Ferguson's paternal policy towards Ryan Giggs at Manchester United. 'Yesterday I was asked by a TV company if they could follow Jamie round over the summer to do a documentary,' Shaw said. 'I told them: no way. The hardest part of coaching him is knowing when he is tired and in need of a rest.'

Tennis is often accused of locking callow youths in human greenhouses, but there is nothing immediately sinister about the satellite circuit, to which Delgado recently progressed from the juniors. But for the blazers and computer sheets yesterday, Bracknell could have been staging a lazy club tournament.

Only, at the end of this unhurried undergraduate phase, vast wealth and prominence await. It is between the screened and shielded world of the LTA developmental system and runaway celebrity of the Sunday supplement variety that Delgado now resides.

If he wins, he loses. His privacy, that is. Also his right to play tennis without being thought of as a national saviour. All those tired British jokes have passed into defeatism outside the sport, but there is still the potential for hysteria when a domestic player transcends the rankings (as witness, Jeremy Bates at Wimbledon last year).

It may have looked gentle at Bracknell, but Delgado is in the thick of a potentially draining schedule that could take in the satellite Masters next week, Milan, Brussels, the French Open, the Stella Artois, Wimbledon pre-qualifying, Surbiton and the junior event at Wimbledon. Shaw would like him to spend another two years refining his game before he steps up to the Grand Slam tournaments.

One recent godsend was that James Baily, another Briton, won the Australian juniors and thus took some of the media heat off Delgado. 'It's good when they go and watch James instead of me,' Delgado said after losing 6-2, 6-4 in the quarter- finals at Bracknell to the more experienced Laurence Matthews.

There is a sense of embarrassment to be felt in asking an averagely built 16-year-old whether he thinks he is going to be big enough for the modern power game. 'People ask that a lot,' Shaw said on Delgado's behalf, 'and I get sick of answering it. I don't know. Carlos Costa was 5ft 4in when he was 18, now he's 6ft (Costa is 25). All I can say is that he's got the talent.'

Time, for a young tennis player, observes no speed restrictions. Behind the barrier protecting Delgado ('Remember he's only just 16,' people remind you), they must acknowledge that while patience is commendable, it is not unusual for teenagers to win Grand Slams. Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Boris Becker have proved that.

Always, even at a place like Bracknell, the unspoken questions asked about a rising player are: how fast are they progressing, how long have they got?

Not long enough, seems to be the answer.

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