Wimbledon '99: Dreams of a parallel world

Tim Henman's team-mate has come back to earth...for Junior Wimbledon. By Alex Hayes
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most memorable, endearing images of the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and the United States, at the Birmingham NEC in April, was that of Tim Henman, the British No 1 and world No 6 player, and Mark Hilton, the British No 25 and world No 933, leaning anxiously on the court-side hoardings during the singles decider between Greg Rusedski and Jim Courier. Their worlds so vastly contrasting, yet their emotions so poignantly parallel. For young Mark and big brother Tim, the prize was neither money nor ranking points; only national pride. For both, the pressure was simply too much to bear.

"I remember pretty much everything," said Hilton when we met during the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club earlier this month. "I can recall how things went: the excitement after winning the doubles on the second day, the disappointment after losing the match. It's all quite vivid."

Hilton, of course, did not play over the course of that Easter weekend. Then again, neither did any of the other squad members apart from the top two British players. This was very much the Tim and Greg Show. But for Hilton, it was never about competing. This was about accruing experience. In much the same way that young footballers, such as West Ham's Joe Cole, are brought into the England squad to gain a taste of international matches, so too Hilton, who turned 18 in April, was invited to watch and learn.

"I was just basically there to experience what it was like in such a big occasion," explained Hilton, who first heard of his call-up when he spoke to his father, while playing in a tournament in Japan. "I practised with the senior players during the week leading up to the match and learned from being around that sort of atmosphere and watching how they coped."

By their own admission, even Henman and Rusedski had never witnessed such fervour, as the 9,000-strong crowd made the kind of incessant noise you usually associate with packed municipal swimming pools during half- term breaks. So for Hilton, it must have been overwhelming. "To be honest," he continued, "I think even they found it very different to what they normally expect. I enjoyed myself immensely. I mean, being around those players was incredible. The whole thing was a great occasion."

Those three days were a far cry from his customary surroundings. While Henman, Rusedski, Courier and Todd Martin are used to competing in major events and Grand Slams, Hilton spends the majority of his time scrapping in the lower reaches of the men's game.

"It's tough if you aren't a top 150 player, but I've just got to be thankful I had the experience, and, I hope, to learn from it. Then maybe in a few years time, I'll be the one playing," said Hilton.

But did the Davis Cup tie not give him a taste for the big-time and what could lie ahead? "Yes. But you've got to experience going through satellites and futures before you get to play the big events. Very few players jump that stage. Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer have done it, and all credit to them. But the majority of players have to get there in stages."

In this his last year as a junior, Hilton's immediate targets are straightforward enough. Get his rankings up and mount a strong challenge in the Junior Wimbledon (Hilton was knocked out in the pre-qualifying for the main draw in Chiswick). "I am about 70 in the junior rankings now, but I was as high as 34 at one point. My ranking dropped in the last 12 months because I've been playing in senior events and therefore not always defending the points I won last year.

"Ideally, I'd like to finish 1999 inside the top 25 [of the junior tour] and get my ATP ranking inside the top 600." In order to achieve this, Hilton is obliged to divide his playing schedule between Future tournaments and junior events. Hardly the easiest of juggling acts? "It takes some planning but normally it turns out fine," he insisted.

Points progression is only one part of the challenge, however. Indeed, Hilton is only too aware that he also needs to develop his game if he is to play in the court of his elders. Only achieving the latter will ensure the former. "I don't really see any key weaknesses in my game," he pointed out. "But there are little things I need to improve on. And not just my shots, but my mental fortitude as well."

Of his height - or at around 5ft 8in the lack of it - he is, as it were, far shorter. "I am aware that I'm not the tallest player, but I've got to try to counteract that with other attributes that I have like speed and strength. There are players now who aren't that big and are competing with the best."

Most notably, the 23-year-old Marcelo Rios, who reached No 2 in the world rankings at the end of last year. "I watch videos of him and study how he plays," Hilton said. "I just try to pick up the little things that he's got and that I could add to my game in order to improve. I have to look to get a high percentage of first serves and compete well in the longer baseline rallies."

Perhaps Hilton is right to defend his style. Britain has traditionally produced natural attacking grass-court type players, but many, aside from Rios, have made a success of playing from the back of the court. The likes of Andre Agassi and Hewitt are just two recent examples of the style pioneered by Bjorn Borg, to record effect, in the Seventies. Hilton may play from the back, but he enjoys watching the more attacking players: "I love guys like Pete Sampras and Boris Becker. They are great to watch."

Talking of serve-and-volleyers, another one of Hilton's sources of inspiration can be found much closer to home, in the shape of a Davis Cup colleague. "Tim is really great for us. To see what he's achieved makes you want to do that and be in his shoes." Attempting to shadow those Adidas trainers could prove a fruitless task. Comparisons can be damning and unfair, but in his own way - perhaps clay will be that way - Hilton can leave his own indelible imprint on the British game. Somewhere nearer the baseline.