Young guns shoot for ghetto blasters

INTERNATIONAL tennis stars lead a pampered life. Chauffeured from hotel to stadium, coaches to pamper and cajole them, entertainment laid on in the evenings, and all the soft drinks, crisps and sweets they can consume for free . . . If the last item seems an unlikely perk for the fruit 'n' pasta crowd at the Australian Open in Melbourne, that is because the stars so honoured were not competing at Flinders Park, but at the Telford International Tennis Centre in Shropshire. And they were all 14 or younger, hence the free snacks on offer in the referee's office.

The prizes in Telford - ghetto blasters and CD players - may not match the hundreds of thousands of dollars available in Australia, but the players were every bit as determined to make their mark as their fellow teenagers Tim Henman, Mark Philippoussis and Chanda Rubin.

Officially sanctioned Teen Tennis tournaments such as last week's event are the first opportunities that young players get to test their abilities against their contemporaries from overseas. "This is where you find out whether or not you can match the others," said 13-year-old Steven Lockwood, from Felixstowe.

Lockwood had a good week: three wins in the singles set up a semi-final against Stephane Wauters of Belgium, played at 9am on Thursday: Teen Tennis players get up earlier than the grown-ups. It was obviously a little early for the tennis fans of Telford. As the boys knocked up, ornamental plants (six) outnumbered spectators.

No matter, there was personal honour and a top-line electrical item at stake, and the lads gave it all they had got. Wauters was the taller of the two, and had a powerful forehand. Lockwood chased everything, and worked out early on that his opponent tended to net smashes. He lobbed when he could, and got to the net whenever he could. But the Belgian's power was too much for him in the end, and despite the encouragement of the other British players ("Go Locky"), Lockwood was not to get his hands on the hi-fi. Wauters won 6-3 6-3. Felix-stowe's finest hid his head in his towel in classic beaten semi- finalist style, then trudged off court.

"He's a good player," Lockwood reflected in the Tennis Centre's lounge a few minutes later, falling in to the post-match interview routine like a veteran. "He's got such a strong forehand. I wanted to get to the net more often, play a few more balls, but it just didn't happen." There was no shame in the defeat: Wauters later won the final.

Lockwood is one of the top three British players in his age-group, but he was not force-fed the game as a tot, nor does it obsess his every waking moment now. "I started short tennis at six," he said, "and I've been coached since I was eight." He practises for about six hours a week in Ipswich, works on his fitness and plays for the school basketball team.

His parents, David and Ursula, travel to as many tournaments as they can. "It's the petrol costs that are the real killer," David, a supervisor at the port in Felixstowe, said. "He's got two sisters, but Steven is the only one who is into tennis - thank goodness." The Lockwoods are realistic in their ambitions for their son. "So few British players can pay their mortgages out of tennis," David said. "Durie and Bates managed it, and now Henman. I hope Steven goes on and makes a living from the game, but even if he doesn't he has had fun, he has travelled abroad, and the whole experience has helped him to mature."

According to Eleanor Lightbody, a Rover National Training Coach with the Great Britain Under-14 squad, this broadening of horizons is a vital part of the youngsters' development. "We're trying to teach them to be young pros," she said. "To prepare properly, warm up properly, and play properly. But tennis is not the only priority: they learn independence and confidence. They learn about foreign cultures. They find out for themselves how they should behave. And they have fun."

While Lightbody was quick to praise her players, she would not single any individuals out as likely stars of the future. "They have all got a chance," she said. "That is why we are here working with them."

It was not all work, though: the British players lolled on a sofa, talking football with the Dutch boys. The French played cards with their coach, the Uzbekistanis squabbled good-naturedly with the Georgians over whose racket was whose - an international summer camp in wintry Telford. Next week, a tournament in the French Alps. Next year, next few years? "Who knows?" Steven Lockwood said. "I might get a big serve, I might get a big injury. I reckon my chances of making pro are about even." One day, Steven may walk tall on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. But what does he need more than anything to realise his ambition? He grinned. "A growth spurt."

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