Now is the time to get serious about Childs' play

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The Independent Online

In tennis, when the earth moves you are either playing a blinder or have been caught in an earthquake. Alas for Lee Childs, it really was an earthquake. It happened at the start of the year during a Challenger tournament in Honduras. "They carried on with the event but the place was pretty smashed up," said Childs. And when Lee came back to Britain he was out of action for four weeks, having additionally caught a virus.

Just another episode in the hectic life of the Bridgwater youngster who won the national title a year ago at the age of 18 to much acclaim. The British closed championships get under way tomorrow at the new tennis centre at Horwich, near Bolton, and Childs is looking forward to a successful defence. If he does manage to retain the national crown, he would be the first to do so since Tim Henman won it three years in a row between 1995 and 1997.

As a junior who had just become British champion, Childs stood 428th in the world senior rankings. A year on, he has moved up to 374, less than might have been expected following his wild-card win over a top 100 player, Sargis Sargsian, at the Brighton ATP indoor event at the end of last season. So many outstanding British juniors have found the leap into the senior ranks daunting, but Childs is realistic about his first year among the big boys.

"Results-wise it has not been very good, really, but I am playing a lot better than a year ago," he said. "Stepping up you run into a stiffer level of competition and you have to play abroad much more. Mentally, I feel much stronger, too."

Childs, who made his Davis Cup debut in the victory over Portugal in April, was given wild cards into the Stella Artois and Wimbledon Championships, losing in the first round of both. "But you can't allow yourself to get distracted or downhearted by setbacks," he said. "You have to believe you are doing the right things because the second you drop your head you are in trouble. Keep your head up, keep fighting. I know I can play good enough tennis to compete at my new level."

Childs will get the chance to extend the form he showed in reaching the semi-finals of a $15,000 event in Leeds a week ago. He has also had the stimulation of being part of the British Davis Cup squad who did so well in Ecuador last month. He arrives in Bolton, where the championships are being staged for the first time at the £19m venue opened during the summer alongside Bolton Wanderers' Reebok stadium, as the eighth-ranked British man.

Henman and Greg Rusedski have grown beyond competing for this kind of pot (£5,000 to the winner) but Childs will be challenged by Martin Lee, now in the world's top 100, Barry Cowan, who gave Pete Sampras a fright at Wimbledon, and the 1999 winner, Jamie Delgado.

In the women's event, the absence of the champion, Lorna Woodroffe, with a back injury will offer the British number one, Julie Pullin, the opportunity to win her third British title. Having triumphed in 1996 and 1998, the 177th-ranked Pullin, 25 years old and from Mountsorrel, Leicestershire, will also be full of good cheer, having just won a $25,000 Challenger event in Cardiff, her first such success for two years.

And to those who dismiss the Nationals as a closed-shop affair of little importance, Pullin points out: "My previous victories are two of the best moments of my career. To say you are national champion is a great honour." An honour free of earthquakes, too.