Collin smashing through the ranks

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The Independent Online

By Ronald Atkin at Telford

By Ronald Atkin at Telford

14 November 1999

The National Championships at Telford do not raise a flicker on the Richter Scale of world tennis. Nor, apparently, do they do a lot for the local populace, since attendance at the start of yesterday's semi-finals sessions was 220 and eventually peaked at just under double that.

But don't make the mistake of telling Hannah Collin the Nationals are not important. The slender 17-year-old from Thames Ditton was so pleased at reaching today's women's final that she only just stopped herself from blurting an "over the moon" quote, settling instead for the more demure comment that she would be "so excited" to end up as champion. Hannah, who sparkled in a 58-minute 6-3 6-2 win over Heidi Farr, would, in fact, become the youngest ever if she can overcome Jo Ward, a surprise 6-7 6-4 7-5 winner over the British No 1, Louise Latimer.

The National men's title would also set the seal on a good year for Jamie Delgado, who threatened as a teenager to match the achievements of his pal and practice partner, Tim Henman, but slipped into anonymity as Henman's career took off. Now 22, Delgado has risen to third in the British rankings. Even so, at 191 in the world, he is miles behind Henman and Greg Rusedski. He resisted the huge serving of Nick Weal, who struck 12 aces, to rally for a 3-6 6-4 6-4 victory.

Collin, seeded eighth, had never progressed beyond the first round in two previous appearances at Telford, and last year was knocked out by Latimer. Since then her game has come along nicely. Accuracy and depth in her groundstrokes is abetted by a willingness to get to the net whenever the opportunity arises, as it did yesterday, courtesy of Farr's erratic shot-making.

The two 17-year-olds shared the first six games but Collin then ran away with the match, taking six of the next seven games to establish a 4-1 second-set advantage which Farr never remotely looked like overtaking. "I have had a really good year and it is beginning to show in my results," said Collin. "I have played a lot of matches, I feel match tight, I've been playing the big points well and I keep calm on court. I am gaining experience, working towards a place on the WTA circuit."

The Surrey girl leaves for the United States soon for a series of junior events, followed by New Year in Australia, and she would dearly love to travel as national champion. "No one could take that away from me for the rest of my life," said Collin, who left school a year ago in order to play tennis full-time.

Ward's victory over Latimer was a triumph of will and determination. Having thrown away the opening set by playing the tie-break poorly, Ward then needed lengthy treatment from the British Davis Cup trainer, John Matthews, for a recurring back problem early in the second set. Surely no one would have complained if she had chosen to default. But the 24-year-old from South Shields, now based in Biarritz, has had four knee operations and come back so well from being told seven years ago that she would never play tennis again that she won this title in 1994.

Ward, the fifth seed, was forced to forsake the comfort of a chair at the changeovers because of her injury, but it certainly did not seem to affect her play. In fact, as so often happens, it was Latimer who appeared more affected by the delay and a service break late in the second and third sets was enough to torpedo her title hopes.

In the absence of Henman and Rusedski, for whom this event is no longer worth the effort, Delgado was awarded top seeding and so far he has fulfilled it comfortably enough, despite struggling in the opening set yesterday. "I didn't come out of the blocks very well," he admitted. "But I competed well because Nick had nothing to lose."

True enough. At 1,310 in the world rankings, Weal could hardly be lower on the totem pole of tennis and, at the age of 26, time is certainly not on the side of the Hampshire right-hander. His weight of shot and that booming serve had Delgado on the back foot at first but once he had settled, Delgado impressed. His top-spun backhand was particularly effective, though he benefited from Weal's insistence on feeding it.

Delgado's ambition seems limitless after a good year in which he qualified for Wimbledon and got to the second round and then won two challenger tournaments in Brazil. This has helped him unearth that precious commodity, self-belief. "My game is pretty much the same," he said, "but in my head I have grown up and realised I have a good chance of breaking through.

"Obviously Tim and Greg are leagues and leagues ahead. I could get into the world's top 50 and nobody would notice," he said. With a top 50 place, Delgado would be assured plenty of attention from a nation desperately seeking Britain's Third Man.