Tennis: Latimer on short list for success

Ronald Atkin meets the British No 1 aiming for a home run
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GIVEN THE current state of British women's tennis, the title of No 1 is meaningless in terms of world prestige. But this week the national championships have their annual airing at Telford, and Louise Latimer is determined to demonstrate that, en route to a better world ranking, she's the best of British.

The 21-year-old Latimer stands at 138 in the world, a ranking this determined young lady has vowed to improve. But first there is the matter of justifying her top seeding at Telford, where she was runner-up two years ago. Her best friend on the tour and frequent travelling companion, Julie Pullin, is the defending champion, seeded to face Louise in the final, and though there are no world ranking points at stake Latimer is relishing this Brits- only event.

"Obviously, if I win the tournament it would do wonders for my confidence and would be quite good for my bank balance [first prize is pounds 7,500]. It would also be nice to win five matches in a row," said Latimer, whose match-toughness and self-belief need a boost after recent elbow damage sidelined her for five- and-a-half weeks.

The injury was a freak one, sustained when she was working out with a medicine ball. "I chipped a bit of bone off my elbow and, though I didn't feel anything at the time, when I tried to play the next day it was too painful to hit backhands."

Louise came back at a Girobank event in Taunton a fortnight ago, but last week's second-round defeat in a challenger tournament at Hull has left her short of match practice.

"The injury came at a particularly bad time, because she was making considerable progress," said Latimer's coach, Leighton Alfred, who runs the training at Nottingham tennis centre, where Louise is based. "A single- minded approach has set her aside from others. She has allowed nothing to get in the way of becoming a top player. She has a lot of mental strength and is a tough, dogged competitor with an all-court game. She can be quite aggressive, yet has finesse and touch."

Wimbledon this year was where Louise ascended to British No 1. Offered a wild card, she responded by defeating France's Anne-Gaelle Sidot (world ranking 45) before losing a tight three-setter to another French girl, Sarah Pitkowski. But what propelled her to the top was the fact that Samantha Smith lost all the points she had picked up for reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon 1998.

"I would have preferred it if Sam had stayed where she was and I had overtaken her," Loiuse said. "It was not quite the way I wanted it to happen, but despite that it was not really a surprise, I knew I could do it."

Latimer does not feel comfortable being a No 1 with the ranking of 138. "My immediate goal is to get inside the top hundred so I can be in the main draw for the Grand Slams and other big tournaments. And once I get there I will set a new goal. I think it can happen in six months or so, provided I don't get injured again."

Although clearly not short in the matter of confidence, Louise is, at 5ft 6in, built more along the lines of Martina Hingis than Venus Williams. "I won't be growing any more," she sighed. "But I am lucky I am 5ft 6." Before you can ask why, she adds: "I like to say that, it makes me sound taller." Her older brother, Simon, is 6ft 1in. "He got the height and I didn't," she smiled.

Appropriately, it was short tennis which brought her into the game at the age of six in Norwich, where she was born and lived for 12 years until moving to Sutton Coldfield with her parents: Colin, an administrator at Birmingham University, and Jo, a district nurse. In 1986, aged eight, she finished eighth in the national short tennis championships but did not figure in any other juniors honours subsequently "because I wasn't really good enough".

But a girl who enjoyed playing football almost as much as tennis as a child was clearly not lacking in determination, and over the past three years her ranking has risen from 620.

Alfred, a busy coach, has devoted much of his time to travelling with Louise. "She has demanded that attention because of her results," he said. "Beating Sidot was her best victory and we are keen to build on that steadily. I had the good fortune to work with Tim Henman when he was a teenager and he was never talking then about being in the top five but the top 200. He kept doing it stage by stage, and that is what motivated Louise to attempt the same."

Latimer considers herself "a good competitor, a good match player" and explained: "I tend not to give up easily. If things aren't going well I know how to scrap, because if you can fight your chances of winning are better.

"Generally, my serve is one of my weapons and I like to get to the net, but every match is a battle for me pretty much, because I haven't got powerful ground strokes like the Williams sisters."

With this outlook it is not surprising her role model is Steffi Graf, but the star she would love to play is Hingis. "She is so unbelievably good, with the ability to hit ground strokes accurately and early, and to read the game so well."

That opportunity, like a ranking inside the top hundred, is in the future. For the moment Telford beckons, and the hope of a clash with her best pal, Julie Pullin.