Tennis: Hilton not five-star

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The Independent Online
THAT ANNUAL festival of introspective indulgence, the National Championships, trundled towards a conclusion at Telford yesterday, with the outstanding performance provided by a 29-year-old, Danny Sapsford, who has more than once announced his impending retirement.

Relevance to the world scene is not one of this tournament's strong points. After all, this is one occasion where British winners are guaranteed, but the least we are entitled to look for is a sign or two that there might be life after Greg 'n' Tim.

The only glimmer at this year's occasion was the eruption on to the scene of a 17-year-old blond-haired wild card called Mark Hilton who sports an ear stud, but he was eclipsed 6-1 6-2 in 46 minutes in the semi-finals by the unseeded Sapsford.

In the final Sapsford faces another unseeded player in Nick Weal, who defeated the third-seed Miles Maclagan 7-6 6-4 in the other semi-final.

The women's final, watched from the gallery by two British Grand Slam champions, Ann Jones (Wimbledon 1969) and Sue Barker (French Open 1976), offered further depressing evidence that the women's game in this country shows no sign of rising from the casket. Sam Smith, the defending champion who will be 27 this week and is the only British woman in the top 150, was beaten by Julie Pullin, ranked 158 and the 1996 Telford winner, 6- 7 6-2 7-6. It was a tedious contest, played at pedestrian pace, knee-deep in errors and containing 16 breaks of serve in which Smith led 5-1 in the final set and missed five match points before Pullin converted her only match point in the second tiebreak with a confident smash.

Unlike the men, where the seeds have been well and truly scattered over the past few days, Smith and Pullin are the top two women's seeds, so we were watching the acknowledged best pairing.

Pullin certainly had early opportunities to topple the champion, spurning two set points at 5-4 in the opening set. After Pullin went on to lose the tiebreak 7-4 an anorak in the crowd called out: "Play it again Sam." She did what we can only assume was her best but struck far too many discordant notes and was beaten by an opponent who at least managed to hang on gamely when she could have been excused for packing it in.

Sapsford, vastly experienced in the art of baseline tennis, handed Hilton a lesson in a 46-minute contest in which he conceded only seven points on serve and was never in the slightest danger of falling victim, as the fourth and fifth seeds, Nick Gould and Martin Lee, had done earlier, to Hilton's excellence on the passing shot.

What Hilton will take from this match, in addition to his best-ever prize cheque of pounds 2,200, is the knowledge that there remains much to do back at his workplace, the Nottingham Centre of Excellence.

The left-hander from the Cheshire village of Mickle Trafford did not make a muck of this match, even though he served indifferently and lapsed too frequently on the forehand. Sapsford possessed far too much weight of shot in their rallies and was content to beat Hilton from the baseline, whereas his earlier opponents had tried to dominate from the net.

Hilton, standing only 5ft 7in, was also one of the rare people Sapsford was able to tower over. It never does to tax short people about their lack of stature and, when asked if he hopes to grow into the job, Hilton pointed out "Marcelo Rios is not the biggest either."

But Hilton showed enough - especially one stunning forehand service return to save a set point in the opening set - to indicate that he might go further than the usual run of bright British juniors who never seem to make the transition to full professional status.

However, to put things into perspective about the size of Hilton's task, he is now 17 years seven months, exactly the same age as Boris Becker when the German (who is 31 today) won his first Wimbledon.

Hilton, who conceded he was "a bit disappointed" about the quality of his serve and forehand shots, intends now to mix up junior and senior events and flies to America tomorrow to play in Florida junior tournaments leading up to the Orange Bowl.

"Hopefully Mark will learn from this week and go further," Sapsford said. "But he is going to encounter the same problems as me, not having a big enough shot to hurt people. He will also have to find a way to hold serve. But he has a good attitude."