19 November 2000

Brough Scott meets the youngest national champion who is now about to embark on a career in tennis

Pawlett Primary is a longish way from Wimbledon. It’s a little village looking down to where the River Parrett runs into the Severn Estuary. Nearby Bridgwater has a relegated rugby club, local league football and 200 skittles teams. But Pawlett’s head teacher, Chris Vincent, loved tennis. Tomorrow former pupil Lee Childs has his first match on the ATP Tour in Brighton’s Samsung Open.

He is, albeit at 428th to Henman’s world-ranked 10th, on the ladder to the stars.

However high he climbs, the now hulking 6ft 1in, 13 ½ -stone Childs is already an astonishing example of how ordinary life can be changed by the fulfilment of sporting talent. Last week at Telford he became, at 18, the youngest winner of the British Senior National Championships. In the summer he won the European 18 and Under Championships in Switzerland and he and doubles partner James Nelson won both there and at the US Open Juniors at Flushing Meadow.

Not a bad start for the son of an ambulance man whose greatest sporting memory is of going up for a corner-kick and heading the winning goal in a village competition called the Tommy Taverner Cup in 1970.

“We didn’t have any great ambitions for the kids,” remembers Chris Vincent about his decision to introduce short tennis to the school soon after he took over in 1985. “I just loved tennis and wanted them to enjoy it too. The older ones did get into leagues but the little ones just loved to whack it during break.

“I can’t pretend to have said Lee would win Wimbledon or anything but straightaway you could see he could hit it more easily and harder than the others. I told his parents we ought to think of getting him some coaching.”

Vincent is now doing a PhD in teaching management at Plymouth University but this week he looked out a yellowing cutting about 70-pupil Pawlett Primary from the Bridgwater Mercury of 11 years ago.

Among reports of photography dark rooms, of football coaching by Steve McClaren, then of Bristol City (and now of Manchester United), there is a picture of an intense, little, round-faced Lee Childs with the quote “I practise a lot and my hope is to be like Boris Becker”.

So the die was cast. “It was a bit of a slog getting him around,” said Ian Childs, who has been with the West Country Ambulance operation for 30 years and is now station officer at Bridgwater.

“My wife is a nurse and the twins, Scott and Shaun, are three years younger than Lee. But it was great fun. I took a week off to watch him win at Telford and remember taking him there as a nine-year-old for the short tennis championships.”

Word got out. Ian would take Lee to Millfield for County coaching with Martin Gillham, and at 14 he got a Rover scholarship to join Ian Barclay’s LTA School of Excellence at Bisham Abbey. By the time that closed last July he was ready to join the Intermediate Squad which Danny Sapsford and Colin Beecher run out of Queen’s Club in London and which includes other young hopefuls such as Mark Hilton (losing finalist at Telford), Stuart Dickson and Nelson, who was practising with him on Thursday.

“In the last year you wouldn’t believe how I have improved,” says Lee without false modesty. “Our trainer Jeremy Green has really made us graft and having a group of us makes it much better. To be honest with you I thought I had a chance last week (he was seeded only sixth). My game has begun to gel. I had just won at Leeds and when I beat Martin Lee in the quarters I said to myself `keep your head down and keep working and you could be all right here’.”

He is a large chap with the power and pace to send down 21 aces with his 125 mph service but still has to work on his speed and movement and, of course, has to get blooded in the big time at Brighton this week. He has a particularly tough opener against Armenia’s Sargis Sargsian.

On the court he is already a formidable presence but sitting down his face still has the open features of the country lad from Somerset due back home for four days’ intensive instruction to try to pass his driving test and so be able to buy his first car with the £7,500 winnings (LTA take 30 per cent) from the British Championships.

Coach Danny Sapsford has seen them come and go. He has played Davis Cup and himself actually won the national title two years ago at the ripe old age of 29.

“Lee has a big, aggressive game which could go a long way against the seniors,” he says guardedly. “Mentally he has got to get used to the pressure environments so this week in Brighton will ask some proper questions and afterwards we will sit down and set some goals. Something like top 200 in a year, but it needs to be attainable.”

Childs accepts it is early days. “But I am not frightened of playing anyone. Someone like Tim has so much experience under his wing. I haven’t. I am 18. If he could give me a bit of his experience in a cheque or something it would be easy. But you have to work for it.”

As he leaves, a big boy marching undaunted into a man’s world, you still feel a twinge of parental apprehension of what the search for sporting fame and fortune may bring. That’s when you seek the close of his final school report. “In spite of his natonal success at tennis,” wrote Chris Vincent, “Lee has remained very level-headed. He is a very reliable person and a pleasure to work with.”

Cyril Connolly once gloomily wrote that “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising. But if Lee Childs still echoes those words of `the Head’ his climb could be to the highest rungs of all.

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