Tennis: Sapsford's number comes up

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE WINNER, Danny Sapsford, was No 526. The runner-up, Nick Weal, was No 841. It seemed like the result of a local raffle, but was a national lottery: the numbers represent world rankings.

To say the National Championships ended yesterday as limply as they began would be accurate, if unkind to the men's singles finalists. Sapsford and Weal deserved the prize-money and the applause in the absence of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski who, thankfully, have graduated to the big stage.

The problem is that Sapsford, 29, is only a part-time singles player with doubles as his main earner, and Weal, 25, is a part-time coach endeavouring to put his playing career on track. Sapsford, who prevailed yesterday, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5, after two hours and 16 minutes, took only 46 minutes in the semi-finals on Saturday to dispatch Mark Hilton, a 17-year-old who had shown signs of promise, 6-1, 6-2.

Last year, Henman defeated Sapsford in the semi-finals at Telford after returning from a day trip to Hanover, where he earned $110,000 (pounds 68,750) as a substitute by beating Yevgeny Kafelnikov in a round-robin match that had no bearing on the outcome of the ATP Tour Championship. "Tim and Greg are good role models," Sapsford said, "but the gulf between them and the rest of the players is so big that I don't think we can close it. If that was to happen, it would have happened over the last couple of years. We need to find five or six young guys who can come up together."

Easier said than done. Sapsford, from Surrey, the winner of seven national junior championships and an occasional Davis Cup team member, won the national title at the 13th attempt to follow three consecutive years of Henman on the roll of honour. "Jeremy Bates summed it up for me when he said, `years of effort'," Sapsford said, after receiving the trophy and a cheque for pounds 9,000.

Weal, from Camberley, welcomed the consolation cheque for pounds 4,500 while emphasising that the week at Telford had given him "the momentum to drive forward" by competing in domestic and satellite tournaments in the company of some of the players he coaches. "Anybody can get to the British No 3 spot," he said, "and from there, who knows?"

A tweaked hamstring handicapped his chances after he dominated much of the match against Sapsford. Weal led 3-1 in the final set and had a break point for 4-1 before double-faulting to lose serve at 3-2.

The women's final on Saturday made up in drama what it lacked in finesse (there were 16 breaks of serve). Julie Pullin, the world No 158, regained the title she won two years ago by defeating Sam Smith, the defending champion, 6-7, 6-2, 7-6. Smith, the world No 65 from Essex, experienced the kind of nightmare we have witnessed in greater arenas from the likes of Jana Novotna and Gabriela Sabatini. Leading 5-1, 40-0 in the final set, Smith failed to convert five match points. Pullin, from Sussex, needed only one.