Anne Keothavong: Britain's other big hitter
While Andy Murray has grabbed the headlines, Britain's No 1 woman, Anne Keothavong, has also had a breakthrough year, albeit a less glamorous one that has seen her play many obscure tournaments – including one in a war zone. She tells Paul Newman all about it
Thursday 13 November 2008
In a year that has taken her from Bratislava to Barnstaple, from Monzon in Spain to Makarska in Croatia, from gunfights in Lebanon to gung-ho performances in New York, it was fitting that Anne Keothavong's season should finish last weekend in an unlikely tennis outpost, Krakow in Poland.
It was appropriate, too, that it should end in victory, the 25-year-old Briton rounding off her most successful campaign by avenging three previous straight-sets defeats at the hands of Romania's Monica Niculescu to claim the biggest win of her career. "I've been to places that were so obscure that I can't even remember the names of the towns where I was playing," Keothavong said on her return to London this week. "It's good to be back home."
Unlike Britain's other No 1, Andy Murray, who was in the world's top 10 by the age of 19, Keothavong has taken her time to climb the tennis ladder. At 19 she had yet to break into the world's top 200 and even at the start of this year was ranked No 132. In this week's updated ranking list, however, she was at a career-high No 61 after a season that has yielded four titles, appearances in two other finals and a run to the third round of the US Open, the best performance there by a British woman for 17 years.
If Keothavong can maintain or improve that ranking next year, she can look forward to playing regularly on the main Sony Ericsson Women's Tennis Association tour rather than at some of the far-flung venues on the International Tennis Federation's calendar.
"Even when you're travelling to places like Italy and France on the ITF tour you're not going to the main cities," Keothavong said. "You have to look them up on the map. They can be very isolated. You're often playing in a tennis centre in the middle of nowhere with not too many people around. Sometimes it's a good thing if you have more than 10 people watching your matches."
Jounieh in Lebanon, where victory this May propelled Keothavong into the world's top 100 for the first time, may not be on her schedule next time around. While she was playing there six months ago, Hezbollah and Sunni fighters were engaged in fierce combat just 10 miles away in Beirut, resulting in more than 40 deaths.
"Although it was perfectly safe where we were, it was scary to think of what was happening nearby," Keothavong said. "I think my parents were very worried. They got in touch and wanted me to get home as soon as possible. I was on my own because I wasn't working with a coach at the time. The last thing they wanted was for their daughter to be caught up in anything like that.
"The Spanish Embassy were very helpful. At the end of the tournament I tagged along with the Spanish girls. We were escorted all the way to the Syrian border. A few of the French girls took a boat to Cyprus, but the only way we could get out by air was through Damascus because they had closed down Beirut airport. There was a security car, armed with lots of guns, driving two minutes in front of us. We went through one of the towns that had been heavily bombed and you could see all the bullet holes in the walls of the buildings."
Keothavong's parents know all about the horrors of war, having arrived in Britain in the 1970s from Laos, a bloody battleground of the Vietnam War. "Laos was one of the most heavily bombed countries," Keothavong said. "My Mum came here as a refugee to escape what was going on. It was here that she met and married my Dad."
Born and bred in Hackney in London's East End, Keothavong was introduced to tennis by her father. "He's a big tennis fan. One of the first things he did when he came to England was to go and watch tennis at Wimbledon. When I was four my parents took me and my older brother to short tennis classes at the weekend. When I was seven they had free tennis camps in the summer and we played together with friends in the park."
She cites her parents as the biggest influences on her career. "They put so much into my tennis right from the beginning. When I was a kid they did so much, ferrying me round to tournaments every weekend, to training after school, chaperoning me to places. They gave up so much time for me, my brother and my sister. My parents are very special people to me and the older I get the more I appreciate them. I think that if I could do half of what they've done when I become a parent, I'll be doing well."
While Keothavong's talent was evident from an early age, it was only after she left school at 16 that she seriously considered a professional career. "I tried doing A-levels by correspondence, but I was training at the same time with Alan Jones and Jo Durie at their academy at Hazelwood. I was junior national champion. The A-levels soon got pushed to the side, but my parents fully supported me."
Progress was steady but slow and by the start of last year Keothavong was beginning to consider her future. "I was feeling that if I didn't break into the top 100 by the end of this year I might be questioning what I was doing," she said. "Much as I love tennis I never wanted just to be stuck between 150 and 200. Maybe the dream would have been over and I would have looked to do other things."
However, making the semi-finals of a WTA tournament in India last September brought a timely confidence boost, even if subsequent injuries meant that her breakthrough into the top 100 was delayed. "I knew I could do it," she said. "You just have to have a little bit of luck and a little run somewhere to reassure yourself that you're on the right path."
This year, her ranking boosted by improved results, Keothavong became the first British woman for nine years to earn direct entry into a Grand Slam tournament when she played at Wimbledon. "Playing without 'WC' [wild card] by my name at Wimbledon was very satisfying," she said. "I've had my fair share of wild cards. I've appreciated the opportunities they've given me, but this year was much more satisfying.
"As a British player Wimbledon is the place where you want to do well. That's where you receive the most exposure and have your friends and family watching you. You want to do well not only for yourself but also for everyone who's helped you.
"I went there for the first time when I was eight. I remember getting Boris Becker's autograph. When kids come up to me for my autograph and ask what my name is and where I'm from me it reminds me of when I used to do that at Wimbledon."
Keothavong beat Vania King in the first round – only her second victory in eight appearances in the main draw at the All England Club – before a battling defeat to Venus Williams, the eventual champion. Two months later she did even better at the US Open, enjoying the finest win of her career against Francesca Schiavone, then the world No 27, before losing a hard-fought contest against Elena Dementieva, the Olympic champion, in the third round.
Over the summer Keothavong spent three months playing on the main women's circuit and was pleasantly surprised by what she found. "The gap with the level I'd been used to wasn't as big as I thought," she said. "I used to put the top girls on a pedestal and think they were so good. But having been around the bigger tournaments for a while and had the opportunity to train with some of the top girls, it has made me realise the gap isn't that big. I know I can stay with these girls and beat them."
Keothavong has had a number of coaches, but is an independently-minded individual, equally happy whether she is working and travelling on her own or with assistance. Claire Curran, a former doubles partner, and Nigel Sears, the head women's coach at the Lawn Tennis Association, have both been working with her recently, but neither of them on a full-time basis.
"I like my independence," Keothavong said. "I feel I'm focused enough and know what I'm doing. Having Claire or Nigel around to support me has been great, but technically I can't make any big changes to my game now. That has to be done at a younger age.
A whole-hearted competitor with an attacking game, Keothavong has developed the confidence to keep going for her shots. "I have to believe in how I play. Sticking to my game is what will take me further. Just because you miss one shot doesn't mean you won't make the next one.
"Tennis is a very mental game. Playing against Dementieva and against Venus made me realise that I can keep up with the biggest hitters. I can give them a good run for their money.
"When you're around better players you're forced to raise your game. Playing against and practising with them can only help you to become a better player.
"I just have to take it one step at a time. Having broken into the top 100, my next target was to get into the top 75. Now I've done that, my sights are on the top 50."
Healthy competition helps women be fit for purpose
Anne Keothavong is not the only British woman to make progress this year. Mel South is at a career-high No 116 in the world rankings, followed by Elena Baltacha (136), Katie O'Brien (154) and Georgie Stoop (208). Of the emerging younger players, Naomi Cavaday, who has performed well against Martina Hingis and Venus Williams at Wimbledon in the last two years, has been hampered by injuries, but Laura Robson, the 14-year-old junior Wimbledon champion, won the title at Sunderland last weekend in only her fifth senior tournament.
While the progress of the British men has been slow – Alex Bogdanovic (182) is the only player other than Andy Murray in the top 200 – their female counterparts are showing the benefits of the changes made since Carl Maes and Nigel Sears, the former coaches of Kim Clijsters and Daniela Hantuchova respectively, took charge of British women's tennis two years ago.
They have worked in particular on the players' fitness and on developing a more positive approach. "The British girls have definitely helped each other," Keothavong said. "We all train at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton and we push each other. There's a healthy rivalry. We always want to be one step ahead of each other. We're good friends but we're all very competitive people."
The number of ranking places Anne Keothavong has risen this calendar year.
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