Tennis: Cinderella is back at the ball to enjoy herself: John Roberts toasts a Croft original, Annabel by name, as a former queen of British women's tennis makes an unexpected return to court at Telford

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Annabel Croft appeared as 'Miss November' in the Women's Tennis Association's calendar for 1986. She has missed a few Novembers since then, but is preparing to make a return to the court in the Volkswagen National Championships at Telford next week.

The 26-year-old former British No 1 insists that she is only competing for fun, acting 'on a whim' between television and theatre engagements. Among these, she will be playing Cinderella, and it is hoped winning, at the Theatre Royal, Norwich.

Having agreed to take part in an exhibition event at the Nationals, along with Virginia Wade, David Lloyd and Roger Taylor, Croft decided to send in an entry form for the main draw. The curiosity raised by the announcement that she had received a wild card, while not on the scale of a comeback by Wade or Sue Barker, is a measure of the shortage of personalities and the lack of success in the domestic game.

Croft, a British champion progressing through the age groups from under-12, began to raise expectations after winning the Wimbledon and Australian Open junior titles in 1984, though one commentator described her as too pretty to get to the top.

Though quickly discovering that life on the tour - for many players a lonely, highly competitive, unrelenting flitting from continent to continent - was not to her liking, she did win a tournament in San Diego and defeated opponents of the class of Helena Sukova, Wendy Turnbull, Ros Fairbank, Barbara Jordan and Katerina Maleeva to achieve a world ranking of No 24.

When a disenchanted Croft left the sport five years ago, Jo Durie and Jeremy Bates were the British players most likely to cause the odd ripple on the game at large. Durie and Bates, now in their thirties, continue to carry the flag. Croft is surprised that so little has changed in her absence. 'With no disrespect to the players, I am amazed that someone else hasn't come through at the top,' she said.

Is this because there are flaws in the British system for developing players? 'I suppose there must be,' she said, 'but I should not be commenting on this, because I've been out of the game for five years. I take more interest now in the international game than the British game. I don't know 98 per cent of the players playing in the Nationals next week. I know Jo Durie, of course, and Sara Gomer and Valda Lake, but not many more.'

Croft comes from the kind of middle-class background which typifies the image of the British game. She was raised in Farnborough, Kent, and her parents were able to support her talent before sponsors were attracted by her potential.

Could she possibly understand how difficult it must be for enthusiastic young players from poorer environments? 'Yes, I can,' she said, bridling slightly, 'but I will say this: even though my parents had a court in the back yard, it was barely ever used. It was difficult to get players there to play me. I had to do a lot of travelling after school, battling on tubes to get to Queen's Club to play. I trained and practised damned hard - harder than my peers.

'Just because you get a racket put in your hand doesn't mean you will be a great player. Nowadays, players are given as much help as I was given by the LTA; in fact, they probably get more help.

'Yes, there is a problem in certain situations, but the bottom line is how much you care, how much you want to be a player, whether you have a burning desire. I can remember being nine years old and hitting against the garage wall for hours and hours, just because I loved playing tennis.'

The difference came when Croft found herself on a treadmill, burdened with the hopes of the nation. 'You have to be so tough - and I wasn't,' she said. 'I wanted to have friends. I wasn't ruthless enough. You have got to be tough and callous.'

She would advise aspiring talents to be aware that 'competition counts for everything' and at the same time 'try to enjoy yourself'; conflicting aims, as she readily agrees. 'The trouble is that with all the pressures of winning and losing you don't get to know what life's all about. Of course, you can't pass that on. People have to experience it for themselves. All I worried about was that everybody else was worrying for me, the sponsors and everybody. A lot of the pressure was self-created.'

Now that she is able to treat the sport as a recreation, and a means to keep fit playing club matches, Croft has rekindled her love for the game. 'I used to dread playing in the Nationals,' she said. 'Now I'm looking forward to it.'

The draw has brought a first round contest against Alison Smith, of Staffordshire, and though Croft speaks in terms of possibly winning games, rather than winning matches, her reappearance at Telford is bound to add spice to the proceedings. Never short of pumpkins, it will be fascinating to see what happens when Cinderella goes to the ball.

(Photograph omitted)

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