Steely-eyed Ennis aims to stay on top of the world

Sheffield and Britain's No 1 hope can reach seventh heaven in the heptathlon
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The Independent Online

It was far from the madding crowd that packed Crystal Palace last weekend to watch the number one box office attraction in track and field: Usain "Lightning" Bolt. As the rain lashed down on the Paula Radcliffe Track at Loughborough University on Wednesday, there were just a handful of aficionados – mainly coaches and fellow athletes – following the progress of Britain's number one hope for the looming World Championships. Not that Jessica Ennis could have cared as she dusted the sand from her legs and pulled on her tracksuit at the end of a highly productive double shift.

Only the day before, Charles van Commenee, the straight-talking head coach of UK Athletics, had suggested that the Great British public perceived the nation's athletes to be a bunch of injury-prone "pussies and wankers". It was a shame that more of the public were not standing trackside in Loughborough watching Ennis apply the finishing touches to her competitive preparations for the World Championships, which open in Berlin a week next Saturday.

The 23-year-old heptathlete is a Sheffield woman born and bred and has shown a steely determination worthy of her home city in the manner in which she has rebuilt her fortunes. Last summer her Olympic ambitions were shattered by a fractured right ankle. Twelve months on, she stands top of the world rankings in the seven-event heptathlon. She is the only member of the 60-strong British team occupying a top-three place two weeks out from the World Championships.

Whether she can finish on the top step of the medal rostrum in Berlin remains to be seen. Only three Britons have struck World Championship gold since the turn of the millennium: Jonathan Edwards in the triple jump in Edmonton in 2001, Paula Radcliffe in the marathon in Helsinki in 2005 and Christine Ohuruogu in the 400m in Osaka in 2007.

Edwards is now part of the BBC television commentary team, while injuries have placed serious question marks over the fitness of Radcliffe and Ohuruogu in the countdown to Berlin. Unless Phillips Idowu, Edwards' successor as Britain's leading hopper, stepper and jumper, can suddenly strike a golden vein of form, Ennis looks like being the one big hope for British success in the German capital – all 5ft 4in of her.

"You're going to start chucking all that pressure at me," she interjected with a hearty chuckle, midway through a question that opened with an observation about her being the only British athlete with a number one world ranking. Well, it has been coming. Ennis has been on top of the world order since early May when she won the Multistars heptathlon at Desenzano on the shores of Lake Garda with a lifetime best tally of 6,587 points.

Nataliya Dobrynska, the Ukrainian who won Olympic gold in Beijing last August, has had two shots at dislodging her. Late in May she came close with 6,558 points at the Hypo meeting at Gotzis in Austria. In June she was a good way short, registering 6,249 points in the TNT-Fortuna heptathlon at Kladno in the Czech Republic.

The degree in psychology Ennis gained from the University of Sheffield might come in useful in dealing with the burden of expectation she will carry with her to Berlin, via the British team's pre-Championship training camp in Portugal. But then the South Yorkshirewoman is a grounded sort, with a wise head fully screwed on.

"It's obviously going to build up as we get closer to the World Championships," she said of the Great British expectation. "The pressure just comes with doing well. And, you know, if someone had said to me last year when I was injured that I was going to be in this position now, I would have grabbed it with both hands.

"So I'm kind of just appreciating where I am, that I'm fit and going into the Worlds in such a good position. I just want to kind of ignore what you guys are saying [The Independent on Sunday being a representative of Her Majesty's Quality Press] and keep my head down and just try and do as well as I can."

The encouraging thing is, no matter what challenge is put in front of her, Ennis manages to rise to it. In the driving rain at Loughborough on Wednesday, it was impressive enough that she putted a lifetime best in the shot, 13.96m; the puddled throwing circle would have deterred any mere pussyfooter of an athlete. It was even more to her credit that she emerged victorious from the long jump with another personal best, 6.43m.

Coming in the LEAP (Loughborough European Athletics Permit) meeting, it represented something of a giant step for Ennis, who had spent all summer struggling to get to grips with jumping off her left foot rather than the right one she damaged last year.

Guided by her coach of 11 years, Toni Minichiello, everything would appear to be slotting into place at the right time for the pride of the Steel City. Not that Ennis is taking her highly encouraging form for granted. "It does not really matter what happens leading up to the World Championships," she said. "It's all about what happens on the two days of the heptathlon in Berlin. But I do think that having a lead-up like this has given me a lot of confidence in coming back from my injury.

"I think if I'd come back and been a bit behind in what I was doing, I would have gone to the Worlds a little bit anxious. Not that I won't be worried, because I still will be."

Ennis finished fourth at the last World Championships, in Osaka two years ago, missing out on bronze by a tantalising 41 points. None of the medal winners from 2007 will be up against her in Berlin. Carolina Kluft, the peerless Swede who has won the last three world titles, has moved on from the heptathlon to the long jump (and, in any case, is injured at present). Lyudmila Blonska, Dobrynska's erstwhile Ukrainian team-mate, has been drummed out of the sport after failing a drugs test for the second time. And Kelly Sotherton, Ennis' compatriot, is on the injured list.

With Olympic silver medallist Hyleas Fountain of the United States also an absentee, the hand of opportunity would appear to be beckoning. "It's just really nice to be in this position coming into my second World Championships," Ennis reflected. "And, because I missed the Olympics as well, I really want to go there and do as well as I can, and bring back a medal. I just want to go there and do my best."