Tennis: Sam plays a Barclay card

Andrew Baker sees how a change of direction is helping Britain's No 1 player
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THEY call it The Whispering Gallery: a walkway running the length of the vast Telford International Centre, 20 feet above the arena's many indoor tennis courts. There the players, coaches and hangers-on at the Guardian Direct National Tennis Championships have spent the past week observing, comparing notes and just plain gossiping. Everyone who is anyone in British tennis was there - except a certain tall gentleman with a transatlantic accent, who had other business in Germany.

The other British No 1 was there, though: the one who has been around far longer than Greg Rusedski, and who was at the top of the national game when Tim Henman was but a gleam in a marketing man's eye. Sam Smith, the British No 1 woman since October 1996, was back for another tilt at the title which has eluded her throughout her career. "I want to bloody win it," she declared after her first-round match in Telford on Tuesday.

That was a fascinating contest, pitting 25-year-old Smith against Hannah Collin, who at 15 represents the brightest hope of the next generation. Smith, who is ranked 596 places above Collin on the WTA computer, should have dealt swiftly and easily with the youngster, but that would have flown in the face of tradition, for she usually manages to get into a terrible pickle in her first match at Telford.

So it proved on Tuesday when Smith, having won the first set 6-2, seemingly forgot which way round her racket went and lost the second set to love. She pulled herself together to take the final set 6-3 and justify her top seeding, but was snarlingly unhappy about her performance afterwards.

Things went a little better for Smith on Wednesday, but she still had a major hiccup against Helen Crook, a lowly ranked youngster with a booming serve. Smith once again lost her way in the second set having won the first, but this time came to her senses sooner to wrap the match up 6- 3 6-4. And this time she was in a talkative mood afterwards.

Smith is sometimes described as moody, even surly, but this is unfair. She is a complex character, intelligent and vulnerable in equal measure, and not used to the kind of adoring media attention accorded to Henman and Rusedski. This, she reckoned, was one of the benefits of playing at Telford. "It's useful to me," she said. "Useful match experience, and useful media exposure, the sort of thing that will do me good for Wimbledon next year and for when I perform well on the Tour. If I'm in the right frame of mind I can benefit from being here."

Frame of mind is important to Smith, who perhaps sometimes thinks too much for her own good - or at least, for her own game. Having reached 103 in the world in 1991, and represented Britain at the Barcelona Olympics, she abandoned full-time tennis to take a history degree at Exeter University. Since returning to the game in 1995, Smith has broken into the world's top 100, and inspired a troop of younger players to pursue her. But it has been a hard, sometimes lonely existence on the international circuit, and earlier this year, after a disappointing first-round exit at Wimbledon, Smith found herself becoming disheartened.

"I'd like to have been more consistent this year," she said. "I did really well in the US, broke into the top 100, and it was all going well. Then I found myself with a lot of ranking points to defend, coming up against players who were really strong on clay, which is not my best surface. I lost in a few first-round matches and to be honest it was starting to get to me." If she had been feeling more confident, Smith thought, she could have made more of the grass-court season, which suits her athletic game.

A change of direction was needed. For two years Smith had been the leading light of Alan Jones's coaching squad in north London. But recently she decided a new coach might be the answer, and linked up with Ian Barclay, who is in charge of Britain's leading young male players at Bisham Abbey.

Smith is certainly enjoying herself there, and all her enthusiasm for the game seems to have returned. "It is just great down there," she declared. "I think it's fun for the younger boys to have someone like me to hit with. Every time I leave there I feel tired but uplifted, which is how it should be."

Barclay, a veteran of 40 years in the game who is best known for his work with Pat Cash, is delighted with the new addition to his team. "We're a very happy family knocking around together down there," he said. "We have a great time joking around, and I think it is starting to pay dividends. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Of course, I wouldn't call Sam a dog..."

The key to Barclay's approach is self-belief. "I don't have a negative drop of blood in me," he said. "Sam has to believe that she can move up 20 places, then another 20, then another. She has to feel good about herself, bear up, keep a happy face, and believe she can be the best. I would like her to feel that she has fully realised her potential." Smith is determined to give it her best shot. "I want to make real inroads into the top 100 next year," she said. "The best is definitely yet to come from me."

A 6-4 6-1 victory over Louise Latimer, one of the youngsters she has encouraged, in yesterday's final at Telford, delighted Smith and her new coach. "I got the job done," she said afterwards. "I have taken the pressure of expectations, an unusual situation to me, and so in future I will know I can deal with it." The confidence is coming back.