Wilkinson, No 1 in the absence of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, believed he had an opportunity to add the National title to his respectable Wimbledon record of four third-round appearances. Only Henman had denied him success at Telford in the past two years, in the final last year and the semi- finals in 1996.
But when Wilkinson looked up, there was Sapsford, his "bogey player", ready to add a 6-1, 7-6 defeat to his frustrations.
The pair generally meet in county matches or on the Satellite Circuit or the Girobank Tour. Wilkinson reckoned he has won only one of their dozen matches. Sapsford noted that the only singles match he has won in the main draw of an ATP Tour event this year was against Wilkinson in the Bristol Challenger in July.
Sapsford, who had retired once before, decided that 25 defeats was more than enough. Before the US Open he told Jeremy Bates, the Lawn Tennis Association's manager of men's national training, that he would stop playing after the Bournemouth tournament in September. "I asked Jeremy to bear me in mind if there was any work at the LTA."
What changed Sapsford's mind was a lucrative run of success in the doubles event at the US Open in partnership with the South African Lan Bale. They emerged from the qualifying tournament and advanced to the third round, where they were defeated by the Indian Davis Cup pair, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.
Sapsford had stumbled on a nice little earner. "After losing really tough singles matches and picking up only $300 (pounds 185), I found I could share $1,500 for playing in the first round of doubles, which covers expenses, and share $15,000 for winning the second round of some ATP Tour doubles events."
The winner of the men's doubles title at the Nationals last year, partnering Norfolk's Tom Spinks, Sapsford is now ranked in the top 100 as an ATP Tour doubles player. His singles form was sharp enough to earn him pounds 500 for beating Wilkinson yesterday.
Describing the defeat as "a bit of a kick in the teeth", the 28-year- old, ranked No 178, vented his anger by smashing his racket. He said playing Sapsford had become a mind game. "I like to play serve and volley, but I'm not a big hitter, and he always seems to get the ball back," Wilkinson said.
The first set vanished after only 20 minutes, but the second threatened to go on forever as the players engaged in lengthy rallies, chiefly comprising half-court balls that begged to be put out of their misery.
Sapsford, having broken in the opening game, saved three break points at 2-1, was unable to convert a break point for 5-2, and then saw Wilkinson save three match points at 5-3, and level at 5-5. Wilkinson held a set point with Sapsford serving at 5-6 and created three more in the tie-break before Sapsford took his fourth match point to win the shoot-out 8-6.
The leading juniors had varying fortunes. Mark Hilton, 17, defeated Nick Gould, the No 5 seed 6-4, 6-4 but Yorkshire's David Sherwood, 18, was eliminated by Paul Robinson, a 24-year-old qualifier from Northamptonshire, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1.
In the women's singles, Hannah Colin, 16, was unable to stretch Louise Latimer to a third set, the fourth seed winning 6-4, 7-5. Sam Smith began the defence of her title with a 6-2, 6-2 win against her Essex team-mate, Helen Crook..
Four of Britain's former and present Davis Cup players - Jeremy Bates, Andrew Richardson, Neil Broad and Mark Petchey - will compete in next month's special doubles tournament at the Honda Challenge at Olympia in London.Reuse content