Tennis: The head boy of Bisham

Andrew Baker meets a tennis hopeful inspired by the feats of Henman and Rusedski
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The Independent Online
Tim Henman will be the focus of attention at the National Tennis Championships in Telford this week, while his great rival Greg Rusedski seeks further glory at the World Championships in Hannover. But among Henman's rivals will be a young man who, if he fulfils the boundless promise of his junior years, may one day eclipse the achievements and fame of British tennis's dynamic duo. First of all, though, Martin Lee needs to do a bit more growing up.

"I won't peak for at least another two or three years," the 19-year-old said last week. "I could have a dry spell and not be at my best until I am 22 or 23. I think I have probably still got some more growing to do - my father, who was a tennis coach, was 6ft 3in, and at the moment I am only 5ft 11in. And then I know that I have work to do on all my strokes."

Such calm self-analysis is the hallmark of a well-organised personality. But then Lee had plenty of time for introspection while criss-crossing the world in a junior career that culminated with a world ranking of number one. "That was a good time," he recalled during a break from his training routine at Bisham Abbey last week. "Being one of the top players, I think it's fair to say that people were scared to play me then and I went into every match expecting to be able to win it. Obviously, I still expect to be able to win my matches but there isn't quite the same confidence at the higher level."

Lee is approaching the end of his first year in the big bad world of senior competition, a time that has seen his ranking rise from 600 to around 270. Such progress has not, however, been effortless. "My first four months on the senior circuit were pretty hard work. I was away a lot of the time, trying to pick up as many points as possible and I played a lot of matches. It's tiring, mentally rather than physically. I would find that after just a couple of matches I would be just dead in the head. That's why time off is important for recharging the batteries."

That takes place at Bisham, where Lee has lived, somewhat surprisingly, for the last five and a half years. "People do sometimes think that it's a bit strange to live where you train," he admitted. "But honestly, it's great fun. Quite a few of the other lads here I've known for years, and when we've finished our work for the day we can all relax together. I really enjoy my time here, and my coach even manages to make the training enjoyable. Quite often you're laughing so much that you don't notice how long you have been working."

That coach, Ian Barclay, believes the Bisham experience is responsible for Lee's mature outlook. "It's great for Martin," Barclay explained. "He's the most senior of the boys here and he has been the most successful, and there is nothing for building up confidence like having a group of people around you who look up to you and admire you. Martin is a grown- up now, a professional player in his own right who can make his own decisions. He is now the one who rings me in the evening to know what the next day's programme is going to be."

Barclay is guardedly optimistic about his charge's prospects of success at the highest level. "Most of the good juniors come through to success in the end," he declared. "Though in some cases it takes longer than others. Thomas Enqvist, for example, was a great junior and then achieved next to nothing for three years or more - now he is in the top ten.

"Martin has had a tough time in the last couple of months - it's not easy trying to qualify for tournaments when you are constantly playing people who are ranked higher than you are. But there are a couple of players from his age-group who are now in the top 50, and I am sure that sooner or later Martin will join them."

While he is climbing the ladder, Lee can be reassured that he will be shielded from too much public attention by the exploits of his elders and (for the time being) betters. "What Tim and Greg have done is great for the British game," Lee said. "It's also very useful for me that they get all the headlines while I can concentrate on improving my game without distractions. But most of all they are an inspiration. Before they made it, it was hard to believe that a Brit could get into the world's top 20, ten or five. Now it is possible to believe that I can achieve it as well."