Tennis: Telford ready for life after Henman

Tim Henman says this week will be his last appearance at the National Tennis Championships at Telford, while the sponsors are said to be reviewing their involvement. However, as Adam Szreter discovered, the championships are in good health.
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The car park at the superbly-appointed International Centre in Telford is packed every day this week and schoolchildren pour in by the coachload. Entrance to the national tennis championships is free for them, which it is hoped will encourage any budding Tim Henmans to take up the sport. There are also a variety of tennis-related activities to keep them entertained should the matches themselves fail to so so: a "Batak" wall to test their reactions; a tennis "factory" where they can play a variety of games; and a serve- cage where they can measure the speed of their serves.

The tournament itself can seem almost incidental, but ell eyes were focused briefly on Henman yesterday morning as he indulged in a gentle 40-minute work-out on Centre Court, seeing off the promising 16-year-old Scotsman Alan Mackin 6-0, 6-3. But it is Henman's decision not to return next year, added to Greg Rusedski's absence this year, that has put something of a dampener on proceedings.

Cathy Sabin organises coaching clinics and all manner of tennis and sports seminars that go to make the championships more of a tennis conference than a tournament. "Obviously the Greg and Tim thing has been a real plus," she said. "The kids know who they want to see when they come now and we haven't had to push to sell the tickets or fill the clinics.

"I am sad that Tim won't be here next year. The children will miss him as they've desperately missed Greg this year. He's very charismatic and they remember him sitting down and talking to them last year. But people will come anyway because it's now an established event."

Young Mackin, who looked as though he had just learnt more in 40 minutes against Henman than he ever could in a year, said: "I think Tim's proved himself now and it will be a good chance for other players to do well in the tournament next year. Obviously it's better if Tim and Greg play. They attract media and publicity. But that's up to them."

And what of the Lawn Tennis Association? Mike Sertin, the tournament director, said: "The LTA obviously feels that these championships are important for British tennis, for all the players, not just the top ones.

"When we started the event in 1983 some of the top players like John Lloyd and Buster Mottram didn't play either, so they're not the be-all and end-all of this event.

"We would ideally like them to play if it's humanly possible, but with the type of schedules involved it probably isn't fair to ask them. In Sweden and France the top players don't play in the national championships but they're still considered worthwhile events."

If Henman and Rusedski really are deemed essential to the tournament's success, should the LTA make it worth their while financially to attend? "The LTA board is about to receive a review of all the tournaments in the country from bottom to top, and these things will be considered as part of this review," Sertin said, cautiously.

"Guardian Direct are hoping, in principle, to continue to support the event but obviously it depends on how it is to be structured next year. What is certain is that it will take place and it will take place in Telford."

Another plus for next year is that the event will not coincide with the ATP finals, but whether that is enough to tempt Rusedski at least remains to be seen. Whatever happens, it seems churlish to compare this event with any other.