Childs of the future has street cred

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The Independent Online

Twenty-four hours after the Lawn Tennis Association's announcement of another initiative aimed at involving the children of the less well-off, Lee Childs and Mark Hilton emphasised that things might, at last, be stirring in the vast undergrowth of British tennis which lies below the level of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

Twenty-four hours after the Lawn Tennis Association's announcement of another initiative aimed at involving the children of the less well-off, Lee Childs and Mark Hilton emphasised that things might, at last, be stirring in the vast undergrowth of British tennis which lies below the level of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

Watched by the Davis Cup captain, Roger Taylor, and the National Performance Director, Patrice Hagelauer, the teen-aged Childs and Hilton ran out winners of three-set semi-finals at the National Championships here yesterday.

Hilton, the 19-year-old from Cheshire and fifth seed, fought off a spirited challenge by the qualifier Nick Weal to squeak through 3-6 6-4 7-6, while the sixth-seeded Childs, 18 and from Somerset, defeated Luke Milligan 6-3 4-6 7-6. Whoever wins this afternoon's final will become the youngest British champion ever.

Hilton is a bonny battler constructed, as far as height and determination are concerned, along the lines of Michael Chang. When you don't possess the elevation, you require surplus rations of everything else. "You've got to give it your all and I am quite a determined character," he said. At 5ft 7in, Hilton is not physically equipped to blow away the opposition, but he certainly dampened the zeal of Weal, who at 27 has been around for a long time but is playing as well as ever.

Having dropped the opening set in 33 minutes Hilton, so fresh-faced he makes Todd Woodbridge look a positive veteran, mounted a marvellous comeback in a fascinating contest of high-quality tennis. From 2-3 in the second set the Cheshire youth swept six of the next seven games to stand at set-all and a break up in the decider. Weal managed to extend the contest into a tiebreak but Hilton took the last four points in a row to emerge a delighted winner after two hours nine minutes. So upset was Weal that he smashed underfoot the racket which had delivered eight aces on his behalf. For this he was deducted £100 from his £1,600 prize money by the referee, Alan Mills.

Childs, who holds the US Open junior doubles title with James Nelson and is the European Under-18 champion, does not suffer from lack of height or bulk. Or confidence, for that matter. With a ring in his left ear and stubble on his chin he looks someone prepared to do battle, whether on Centre Court or public park. What the LTA initiative is attempting to unearth, clearly, is more lads like Lee. With his mustard shirt and dark socks, the Somerset lad looks a back-streets player, though he has long shown supreme promise.

Milligan has been in his richest form since reaching the third round at Wimbledon in 1996 and their semi-final was, like the first one, a match of the highest quality. There were far worse matches in the Masters Series tournament at Stuttgart last week. What a pity that the Telford attendance was along the lines of George W Bush's Florida majority.

Childs romped away with the first set, Milligan levelled the match in just over an hour. But when Childs went 2-0 up in the decider he seemed to have things wrapped up, only for Milligan to break back and take the match, just like the first semi-final, to a tiebreak decider. The first 10 points were shared before Milligan, protesting that a Childs serve had touched the net, returned the ball over the baseline. The point went against him, he was match point down and a Childs forehand ended the one hour, 58 minutes match to set up what promises to be a fine final for a first prize of £7,500.

Childs and Hilton are members of the same LTA training squad. They know each others' game well enough to have split the four official matches they have played over the years. Their progress may not be Boris Becker-like, but it is encouraging. Hilton is now only just outside the 300 mark in the world rankings. "At the end of the year I will work out my new goals," he said. One wishes him a spurt of growth and a healthy rise in the rankings for 2001.

At 429 in the world, Childs is already lower than either Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski were at the same age. He could be our next big name. Keep your fingers crossed.

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