Tennis: Smith's hard labour meets with a degree of success

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As Britain's No 1 female tennis player, Sam Smith attracts far less attention than either her successful male counterpart, Greg Rusedski, or his rival Tim Henman.

Smith, however, has a deep sense of personal achievement, as she explained to John Roberts while preparing for next week's National Championships at Telford.

When Sam Smith was a junior, the story goes, she once made a point at a tournament by climbing a tree and refusing to come down. "Well," Smith responds, "if there was [a story], it was a very long time ago. I can assure you that I'm extremely determined and very single-minded. I think that's all I'm going to say on that one."

There can be little doubt that the obdurate side of Smith's character rescued her career, enabling the 25-year-old from Essex to climb to No 97 in the world two months' ago.

"I think when people say, `Why aren't you doing brilliantly?' or `Why aren't you this?' and `Why aren't you that?' they don't seem to realise that, firstly, I've come back from four years out of the game, which very few people have done, and that secondly I've actually beaten a very difficult illness as well. So for me to even come back was like winning Wimbledon."

Some young people take a year out from university. Smith took four years out from tennis to study. "I had post-viral fatigue syndrome at the same time, so I didn't really have much choice," she says. "It all sort of happened in one. I didn't really know what was wrong with me. Nor did anyone else. A lot of people just thought I was being really lazy or unmotivated.

"I got selected for the Olympics in 1992, and it wasn't till I went to the Olympic clinic that they realised that there was something quite radically wrong. I wasn't well enough to continue in tennis. It was very debilitating, and I just thought, `Well, I might as well do something useful'."

Would she have gone to university in any event, or continued with her tennis? "It's too hypothetical to say. I had to fight very hard to keep focused on my studies and participate in student life and, particularly the first term, I was extremely tired all the time and always used to fall asleep in lectures. But gradually I managed to beat it."

Smith's reward was a degree in history from Exeter University in the summer of 1995 and a renewed determination to make the most of the present and the future.

"I just thought, `Right, I'm going back into tennis 100 per cent, and I'm going to make it work'. I'm not really thinking about falling back on anything, regardless of what other qualifications I have. And I can't think, `Oh, it's okay I've lost today, because I've got a degree behind me'. I just went back into it to do well.

"Everything that I've done since then is a bonus. To break into the top 100 was something I could have never imagined four or five years ago. People don't seen to realise just how much I've had to go through just to reach the point I'm at now. If they did, maybe they wouldn't be so critical."

In her absence, Smith discovered, the game had "got a lot faster and the depth had got a lot deeper and people were a lot quicker and a lot stronger and were hitting the ball a lot harder.

"But the good thing about being out so long was that I had a very clear perspective on exactly what I needed to do and exactly what was happening in the game. I didn't shy away from it. I've made enormous changes in my game over the last two years to compete. I think a lot of them I've done successfully, and it's an ongoing process."

Her endeavours attracted sponsorship from a firm of Southampton solicitors, Ensor Byfield, and Master Speed Press, whose boss, Terry Brady, is the father of Karren Brady, Birmingham City's chief executive.

"Obviously the financial backing is really important, it takes a bit of pressure off me," she says, "but also the fact that people have got confidence to sponsor me is a real boost."

To some, being the British No 1 probably seems quite glamorous. "I think if I was in the men's game and I was a top 100 man, then the lifestyle would be more glamorous," she says, "but for the women this year, because they've changed the ranking system, it's been very tough, and people have been in qualifying ranked sort of 30 and downwards."

With five other British women now scuffling in the world's top 200, Smith is no longer isolated. "I was until probably the middle of this year, when a couple of girls did well at Wimbledon," she says. "Ever since I've been back I've been completely isolated. It's only been the last couple of months that I've seen any of the other Brits at any of the tournaments I've been playing."

Her health restored, Smith is keeping busy. "The past year I've done a mixture of things. I've played qualifying for all the WTA events, when I can. I've played main draws for Challengers and $25,000 events.

"I've spent a lot of time in the States, 12 weeks, maybe more. I've been in Europe. I haven't really bothered with Asia. I went to Australia earlier in the year.

"I've actually really enjoyed all the travelling. It's been a tiring year, but it's been so worthwhile and I feel I've benefited so much from the amount I've played.

"When I came back, I didn't know what was going to happen from one week to the next. I said within two years I'd really want to be in the top 100, and that's exactly what I did. Unfortunately, I was defending so many points at that time that I've slipped just outside the top 100 now [to No 126].

"I was hoping to do better at Wimbledon, but that didn't happen. I'll concentrate now on improving my ranking and getting back in the top 100, which is completely possible.

"Hopefully, I've got a chance to win the Nationals, which would be great, and have another crack at Wimbledon next year. So I've got a lot to play for."