It's all right for Sam

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The Independent Online
You can tell a lot about a person from the place in which they live. The north London home of Sam Smith, who last week became Britain's No 1 woman tennis player, tells you that she is not someone who is at home very often.

Not that it is untidy: there just isn't very much to tidy in the first place. Table, chairs, sofa, a large modern print on the white wall, television, CD player, and that's it. But then it is not so much a home as a waiting- room, a place to pause between flights.

Last Thursday night Smith arrived back after three weeks away, in Limoges, Leipzig and Filderstadt. Last Friday she sat at the little dining table in a cotton shirt, jeans and bare feet, contemplating a teetering stack of bills, fliers and letters. "I don't have a manager or an agent," she said, shuffling the pile. "I like to do it all for myself." Friday night was looking like a quiet evening in with the cheque-book.

Independence in such trivial matters is symptomatic of Smith's unconventional approach to her career in tennis. In 1992, when on the verge of breaking into the top 100 in the world rankings, and having just represented her country in the Olympics, she left the Tour to go to university. And not for the usual athlete's diploma in sports science or leisure management: Smith now has a history degree from Exeter University, where she specialised in studying the Third Reich.

"Before I went to university I was playing tennis and enjoying it, but with a sense that I had left a job half-done," she said. "I needed to fulfil myself academically. I played tennis for fun at university, because I love the game and competing, but I also had a life outside the game, gave myself some balance."

Thus refreshed, and protected from boredom by a three-book-a-week reading habit, Smith has scooted up the rankings since her return. In the last three weeks she reached the semi-final of a $75,000 tournament in Limoges, beating the world No 58, Patty Schnyder; she beat the world No 48, Asa Carlsson, to reach the second round of a full Tour event in Leipzig, and enjoyed an educational encounter with Jana Novotna in the first round of another Tour tournament in Filderstadt.

She is on the edge of a big step up in class, and she knows it. "When you break through to another level it's important not to think, 'Great, I made it.' You have to look around, learn some lessons. Against better players, new things are exposed that you didn't know were problems. So every time I reach a new level, I'm going to keep looking outwards and upwards, and keep pushing."

She is keen to stress the supporting role of the Lawn Tennis Association in what amounts to her second career. "In order to come back, I needed help, practice facilities, and a good coach. When I played before, I wasn't always in step with the LTA, but since I came back they have really been supportive, and given me the chance."

The younger Smith was not just out of step with the LTA, but frequently with herself as well. "I wanted to succeed too badly, and I didn't handle life on tour too well. I just got too worked up." Now, when she feels the frustrations of the touring life build up, she reaches for a book: Bill Bryson's travel writing, maybe, or John Fowles, whose novella The Ebony Tower she has just finished. She is not worried about ruining her eyesight: "It's lousy already. I've worn contact lenses for years."

Back home, Smith works with her coaches, Alan Jones and Jo Durie, on raising her game so that she can offer realistic challenges to players in the top 30, which she considers the significant quality threshold in the women's game: "Below that, everyone has a chance." At Hazelwood Lawn Tennis Club, two minutes from her flat, she is trying to strengthen her backhand and serve, and improve her speed and mobility. "A lot of girls at the top are, not necessarily tall, but big-boned. I'm tall [ish. She's 5'8"], but I'm slight. I've got to get a little bit stronger."

Smith greatly admires Tim Henman's achievements, but is conscious of the need to balance the national equation. "When Tim and Greg Rusedski started to get a lot of attention, I think there was more awareness of women's tennis in negative terms. But if I start to do well, and a few juniors come through, that will complete the picture."

Her first chance to do well as the national No 1 comes this week in Cardiff. But before that there were bills to pay. Smith popped Jamiroquai's album Travelling Without Moving into the CD and got down to work. Travelling, and moving up.