Tennis: Confidence lessons for Ahl

Andrew Baker looks on as British women players try to move up in the world
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Not so long ago Jo Durie was the leading light of British women's tennis. These days, as a coach for the national squad, she keeps her eye on those seeking to emulate her achievements. The Surrey Grass Court Championships last week were an ideal opportunity to catch some of her brightest charges in action, and on Wednesday afternoon Durie sat in the little grandstand at the Surbiton Tennis Club and watched three matches at once.

To Durie's left, young Louise Latimer, the British No 13 and world No 379, was battling against an irascible American ranked 150-odd places higher on the computer. To her right, the British No 2 and world No 204, Shirli-Ann Siddall, had swiped the first set from a higher-ranked Australian, and straight ahead, Lucie Ahl, Britain's No 4 and world No 220, was taking on Aleksandra Olsza, a Pole ranked 110 places higher.

On display was an instant snapshot of the state of women's tennis in the country: two players, Ahl and Siddall, who have proved their worth at the lower levels of the game and now must graduate to a grander stage, and one of the next generation, Latimer, pushing them along from behind.

Ahl had the hardest lesson. "It's difficult for Lucie," Durie said. "Olsza plays the same sort of game as her but just a little bit better, which is why she's under pressure and rushed." There truly was little to separate the players in style, but there was a noticeable gap in confidence. Too often Ahl's first serve was long, and too often her second was murdered; too often she would be chasing rallies rather than dictating them.

While on either side Latimer and Siddall took the first set from their opponents, Ahl lost hers 6-2. She led 2-0 in the second, and had break points later in the set, but when they were missed the match drifted away and Olsza wrapped it up 6-4. But instead of slinking off to the dressing-room in a huff, Ahl scooted to the side of the court to keep an eye on Siddall's progress next door. Siddall lost. So, eventually, did Latimer. Three second-round matches, three British losers. So, gloom all round?

In the first place, matches against higher-ranked opponents are an inevitable part of progress up the rankings. And in Ahl's case, she would not have been playing Olsza - the eventual runner-up - if she had not, the previous day, defeated Britain's No 1 and world No 122, Sam Smith. "I was very pleased to beat Sam," Ahl said. "We're both on the same squad in north London, and it has to be good to beat the No 1. All the British girls support each other really well, and Sam gives the rest of us the incentive to move up."

Smith would be delighted if Ahl, Siddall and Claire Taylor, who are all poised to break into the top 200, would hurry up, if only to provide her with company at the many international tournaments she plays. Keith Wooldridge, the British women's training manager, sympathises. "Poor old Sam," he said. "It's hard when she's the only Brit. She goes to all these tournaments and there are 10 Japanese and 10 Spaniards and she is all on her own. But now with Shirli-Ann and Lucie and Claire coming along, Sam can look over her shoulder a bit."

What she will see when she does is a chasing trio who are just dipping their toes into the deeper water of international competition. According to Wooldridge, Ahl and Co "are only now getting to the start of the real game. There is a kind of comfort zone that they have all been in where for the most part they are only playing people who are at their own level. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but nobody really moves very much. Now they have to test themselves."

Ahl, a powerful if diminutive right-hander from Devon, knows that the time has come to change gear. "From about 250 to 150 in the rankings the players are all of the same sort of standard," she said. "I really haven't played many people around the 110-120 level, and it's great to be getting out and facing them now, finding out what another level is like."

Wooldridge knows that the transition from satellites and challengers to full WTA Tour events has to be handled carefully. "If you get bopped every week," as he puts it, "your confidence suffers." But he and the coaches have the route planned out. An important part of the process, it almost goes without saying, is Wimbledon, and Wooldridge has recommended that the All England Lawn Tennis Club should offer Ahl, Siddall and Taylor wild cards into the main draw. But he warns against hype and over-expectation. "As David Moorcroft puts it," he said, "you can't microwave athletes." But a spell under the grill on Centre Court can do wonders for confidence.