Tennis: French serve a lesson: Simon O'Hagan in Brighton explains how Julie Halard seized the initiative

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WHEN Julie Halard of France beat Clare Wood of Britain in the Brighton International Women's Indoor tournament last week, it confirmed a new low in domestic women's tennis. For the first time for 20 years, the country has no women in the world's top 100.

On paper, the result was no great surprise. Wood, unseeded, was ranked 107 in the world; Halard, seeded seven, was ranked 23. Clearly Halard was the better player, and she underlined this by going on to reach yesterday's semi-finals against Jana Novotna. Yet looked at in a broader context, the outcome of a match between Britain's best woman and the best woman in France to learn her tennis there (Mary Pierce grew up in the United States) is harder to explain.

For all the dreams of one day producing a Wimbledon champion, there is an air of realism at the Lawn Tennis Association. There are many nations that Britain would not expect to be able to compete with, but France is not one of them.

Both have similar populations from which to draw their tennis talent; both are home to Grand Slam tournaments which yield millions every year. To attain Halard's level, or that of her compatriot Nathalie Tauziat (30 in the world) is surely not such an unrealistic ambition. So where's the catch? It seemed instructive to find out what, in Halard's background, might have made the difference.

Halard is 24 and comes from La Baule on the Atlantic coast, an old-fashioned resort for an old-fashioned sort of girl. She is rather like the daughter in one of those idealised families who used to feature in French schoolbooks.

There is something of the sea air in her game - fresh, occasionally wild, making her both an exciting and a frustrating player to watch.

Like a lot of the new generation of women players, she sets a lot of store by one big shot - in her case a forehand with the power to trouble anyone.

Often an inconsistent player, she is enjoying her best year since joining the circuit in 1987. She reached the quarter-finals of the French Open, losing to the eventual champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and has been a semi-finalist or better in four other tournaments. It's a record Wood would gladly settle for.

'I think the most important thing is enjoyment,' Halard says, and to that end she has largely gone her own way since finishing runner-up in the French under-12 championships. It was then that she had the chance to move to a tennis school run by the French federation, but preferred to stay at home, where she was happy for her two older brothers and 'anyone at my club' to provide her with competition.

'There was always a little war between the federation's players and those who went private,' she explains. 'But I think 12 is too young to be away from home. It's not healthy.' She was monitored by the federation, and a truce was inevitable when it became clear that Halard's talent would carry her all the way into the professional ranks.

Now, as one of her country's leading players, she has access whenever she likes to France's national tennis centre at Roland Garros, with its wealth of facilities and staff from physical trainers to doctors. And as a member of France's Federation Cup squad, Halard received pounds 10,000 to put towards specialist coaching. 'It's very good,' she says. 'They are now doing a lot more for the women's game.'

But Halard surely puts her finger on a simple truth when she says that tennis is a more important sport in France than it is in Britain - 'second to football'. Cycling may have something to say about that, but it is clear that real interest in the sport extends beyond merely the fortnight of the French Open, unlike here where Wimbledon is the be-all and end-all.

It would also be wrong to suggest that, in terms of initiatives, Britain is particularly lacking. New ways to try to improve standards are being introduced all the time, the latest being to include women in a national squads scheme whereby leading players are grouped geographically under an LTA coach. Some have balked at the requirement to leave behind their individual coach, but not Wood. The belief that it creates more success is borne out by the gains British men have made in recent years.

Halard, though, understands the individualistic nature of tennis. 'The sensation of winning,' she says. 'That's what makes this life worth living.'

Britain's women will be hoping that life soon gets a lot better.

(Photograph omitted)