The strange case of the prodigy who disappeared

Simon O'Hagan talks to James Baily, the British hope who retired in his teens
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The Independent Online
THREE years ago James Baily was the latest potential saviour of British tennis. On the eve of his 18th birthday he stunned everyone involved in the domestic game when, unseeded, he won the junior title at the Australian Open.

In a nation that seemed incapable of producing players of any great stature, Baily offered real hope. The first Briton to win a junior boys' Grand Slam event for 28 years, he had shown he could live with the best of his generation and come out on top.

Not surprisingly, people became very excited about the young man from Hampshire. On his return from Australia he turned up at his next tournament, in Eastbourne, to find press and television out in force. He was interviewed by Desmond Lynam on Sportsnight. William Hill had him at 100-1 to win Wimbledon before the year 2000.

That would not have been a very good bet. Baily is now nearly 21, and tennis could hardly be further from his thoughts as he belatedly completes the A-levels that he hopes will take him to university in the autumn. His last tournament was 18 months ago. "I can't remember where it was," he said last week. "Somewhere in England, anyway." Since then he has picked up a racket once, for a friendly hit with his father. His tennis future is all behind him. A career of great promise is over.

So what went wrong? Why has a talent like Baily's been squandered? How could a system which works so hard to nurture good players let him disappear? The answers to these questions, it seems, lie more in Baily's nature than any fault in the structure of the British game.

"I just decided it wasn't for me," he said. "I wasn't happy. Tennis was all I'd ever known from about the age of 12. I'd become a monomaniac. It was a gradual thing. As I got older I wanted to go out more, have a drink, have girlfriends, lead a normal life. I was brain-dead most of the time. I wanted to fulfil myself in other ways. I thought, you've only got one shot at this life. It was time to try something else."

Baily thinks that the 18 months more he gave it after Australia were enough to discover whether he had what it would take to succeed in the professional ranks. He never won another tournament, and the transition from juniors to playing the satellite circuit - the lowest rung of the senior ladder - was painful.

"Everyone is so much friendlier at junior level," Baily said. "The satellites are just torture. No one talks to you and you don't talk to anybody. No one really wants to be there. It could be very lonely. I never felt at home. I did expect more of myself, but even if I had been successful I think I still might be giving up now."

Winning in Australia, Baily said, was "the best day of my life", but any desire to repeat the experience has long since been superseded by other priorities. He wants to get a degree and go into business. "Marketing, possibly - that's the only way I could see myself being involved in tennis."

There was no trace of what might have been - only mild amusement - as he noted that Gaston Etlis, the 21-year-old Argentine who took Andre Agassi to five sets in Melbourne last week, is still making the same mistakes today as he was when losing to Baily as a teenager at the Orange Bowl in Florida. Baily looks at other contemporaries from his junior days now getting on at senior level and says he feels nothing.

"It was always questionable whether he would go on," said Stephen Shaw, Baily's coach at the time of his Australian win. "But I don't think you can blame anyone. He never really loved the game." Let us hope Tim Henman doesn't start to feel that way.