Hilton has long way to go after Hrbaty exposes gulf in class

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The Independent Online

It wasn't quite Henman Hill, more of a Hilton Hump with the modest bank by the side of Court Six temporarily stacked with British fans hoping that the world's 479th best player would, somehow, unsettle the 25th seed Dominik Hrbaty.

It wasn't quite Henman Hill, more of a Hilton Hump with the modest bank by the side of Court Six temporarily stacked with British fans hoping that the world's 479th best player would, somehow, unsettle the 25th seed Dominik Hrbaty.

There was also the need, in the late morning sun, of some balm after England's exit from Euro 2004. That event was certainly on the mind of Mark Hilton. "I was gutted about the football last night and I certainly got a good reception," he said.

"It would have been nice to have played on a bigger court but it was good to have the support I had."

Hilton watched the football against Portugal "in the pub" and admitted he had found it hard to sleep afterwards. His restlessness probably didn't contribute to his straight sets defeat. It was ability and experience he lacked, not energy, as he went down 5-7, 4-6, 2-6.

There had been grounds for some hope. After all, hadn't Hilton dumped out the 2002 French Open champion Albert Costa in straight sets the day before? And hadn't the unheralded 26-year-old Hrbaty only ever won two matches on grass in a career stretching back to 1996? Maybe a place in the last 32 did beckon.

But it wasn't to be. In fact it was never to be. The truth is the crowd started to thin after the first set, which went to serve until the Slovak broke Hilton with a well-placed forehand, and the remainder of the spectators were soon gazing more than occasionally at the scoreboard at Centre Court where Tim Henman was in action.

It was clear that it was Hilton who would check out even if, to his credit and under immense pressure from the power and accuracy of Hrbaty, he committed fewer unforced errors. The 23-year-old simply could not penetrate his opponent's serve.

"It was a very good week for me overall," Hilton, who was awarded a wild card via a qualifying tournament, said: "I feel I played pretty well against Hrbaty. But he was just a better player than me. He is seriously good and has been at this level for some time."

Nevertheless his performances earned him £14,760 in prize money - not enough to trade up from his Mini, or perhaps to stay in a hotel rather than a B&B. "I cannot afford to be extravagant," Hilton said.

More importantly, he was convinced he had made the right decision in not quitting tennis, as he had considered. "A week like this makes me realise I certainly made the right decision," he said.

He has a long way to go. Hilton, at just 5ft 7in, broke on to the scene in 2000 and last year his career highlights were listed as a defeat in the first-round of the Wrexham Challenger.

But, with an eye-catching sliced backhand in particular, yesterday he traded blows with the player aptly nicknamed the "dominator". Hilton's serve was dropped just twice in the opening two sets but that was enough. He started to chastise himself. He had a mountain to climb and it proved too much.

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