Anne Keothavong: 'I didn't want to lose my handbag. It wasn't like he had a knife to me'

The Brian Viner Interview: She has seen off muggers and slept in an attic full off cockroaches, but the British No 1 knows she will face one of her greatest battles at the All England Championships
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The Independent Online

He struck suddenly, the rascal who tried to snatch Anne Keothavong's handbag on a busy street in central London. There was a tug, a scream, a fleeting tussle, and then he was legging it through the crowds, without any ill-gotten booty. It served him right, for picking on a young woman well-versed in martial arts, who has "dabbled" in judo and karate, and is a blue belt in taekwondo. After blue there is only red and black. Handbags are easier to come by.

But less than three weeks ago the Anne Keothavong who saw off the would-be mugger in London was well and truly mugged in Paris. She walked proudly on to the Philippe Chatrier Court at Roland Garros to play the top seed, Dinara Safina, in the first round of the French Open, but less proudly off it, scarcely an hour later, having been trounced 6-0, 6-0. She held back the tears until she reached the sanctuary of the locker-room. Then they flowed, as she reflected on something that wasn't supposed to happen, the kind of affront to her dignity that the aspiring thief might have inflicted, had he made off easily with her handbag.

Her scream on the day of the attempted bag-snatch was not occasioned by fear or even surprise, but anger. "It was a split-second thing," she recalls. There was no time for a taekwondo or judo move, she just refused to let go. "I didn't want to lose my handbag. I like my handbag. It wasn't like he had a knife to me or anything. I suppose I just had the confidence to hold on."

Confidence. For sportspeople it is the most important yet most variable of assets, and the paradox is that nothing saps it like the thing they are best at; better at, in Keothavong's case, than any other woman in Britain; better at, indeed, than all but 48 or so women in the world. In Birmingham on Wednesday she was knocked out of the Aegon Classic by India's Sania Mirza, but a day earlier she hammered Sofia Arvidsson, of Sweden, 6-2, 6-2. Her confidence was briefly as high as it was last month when she arrived in Paris shortly after reaching the semi-final of a clay-court tournament in Warsaw, which had propelled her into the top 50 of the world rankings for the first time. She checked into her hotel just off the Champs-Elysees feeling great. And then Safina went and buried her.

The question is, will there always be someone, in tennis terms, capable of nicking her handbag?

We meet at the handsome National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, on the kind of sun-kissed summer's day with which we all devoutly hope that Wimbledon is blessed. Keothavong will be playing at Wimbledon by right, not brandishing one of the wild cards kept in a drawer marked "doughty British tryers", but she will still need the luck of a draw that last year yielded a second-round match, and a spirited performance in defeat, against the eventual champion Venus Williams. Her objective this time is to nudge into the second week. That is still the limit of what we can reasonably hope for from Britain's women tennis players.

"To win Wimbledon has always been a dream of mine and it might always be a dream," she adds. "Andy Murray can say he's going to win this year, but I've got to be realistic. It's one step at a time. But I'm proud to be British No 1, and I just hope the younger players see me as a good example, someone who conducts herself in a professional way. That will help, and British tennis needs all the help it can get. It will get there, though. The next generation will show we can achieve better things."

At 25 Keothavong seems a little young to be handing the baton of hope to the next generation, but on the other hand her childhood role-model Monica Seles had by the age of 25 long since won all nine of her Grand Slam titles. By Keothavong's own admission she is an unusually late developer, but then better late than never, and although she is circumspect about targeting her own personal summit in the world rankings, she is still fiercely ambitious, one aim being simply to confound the sceptics. "I was written off a long time ago," she says, cheerfully. "It was said that I would never break into the top 100, let alone the top 50. And it's true that I don't have the god-given talent of Andy Murray, but I work very hard, I have great desire, so who knows? I see other girls in the top 30, and I wonder how the hell they got there?"

The rest of us, meanwhile, are entitled to wonder how the hell she got there? Her parents, immigrants from Laos, were never very sporty. But the clue, surely, is in the word "immigrants". Somsak and Vathana Keothavong fled Laos separately in the 1970s, and met in England. They settled in Hackney and gave their four children western names, but more importantly, an appreciation of their advantages in life and the determination to capitalise on them.

Keothavong's sunny face clouds over a little when I bring up her parents' background, so I ask whether she is fed up with interviewers raising it? "Well, I'm sure it's an interesting subject, but they've always wanted to stay in the background. They've never done any interviews themselves, though they've been asked. Laos was one of the world's most heavily-bombed countries, and they both went through a lot, witnessed a lot. It's still a difficult subject for them to talk about and I'm respectful of that, just as they've always been very supportive of me. They got me into the game, for which I'm very grateful, and when they can they come and watch. My dad was in Paris, but my mum stayed behind to look after my younger brother, who's got his GCSEs this year. I'm just one of their four kids."

Had her parents not come from such a benighted country, though, they might have been less inclined to encourage their second child to pursue a sport associated more with privileged youngsters on the Sussex Downs than comprehensive schoolkids on Hackney Downs. She grew up playing on public courts, and one of the reasons she took up taekwondo was the potential need for self-defence on public transport after dark. From the age of 11 she spent hours travelling on buses between Hackney and the sports club in Chiswick, where she trained.

She stills lives with her parents, but is looking for a flat a little closer to Roehampton, slightly half-heartedly, although she is rightly proud of her financial independence. She acquired it the hard way, too, racking up some serious air miles to decidedly unglamorous destinations. "I played all over the place, from the Australian Outback to Mexico, where I slept in an attic full of cockroaches. It toughens you up if you stick at it but there's a high drop-out rate. Fortunately I'm very competitive, and I always felt sure I could get into the top 100."

Having done so, in fine style, she must think it a little cruel of me to raise the Safina result again. But what must that be like, to be publicly eviscerated with the ink barely dry on a host of articles acclaiming your achievement in reaching the semi-final of a WTA clay-court event, the first British woman to do so since Jo Durie in 1983?

She smiles. "I don't think the score reflected the match, but she did overpower me. I'd only had a day to prepare, though, and in Warsaw the conditions were heavy, whereas in Paris the clay was actually quite fast. It was my first time out on the Philippe Chatrier Court, and those are the moments you play tennis for, being on the big stage, though maybe not getting duffed up love and love. I'd never lost by that scoreline before. Well maybe once when I was seven or eight, but never throughout my whole junior career."

A sigh. "It's not the end of the world but I was inconsolable for at least half an hour afterwards, and it was hard for the rest of the day. I went back to the hotel with my dad and every half-hour there was a knock on the door. He was checking if I was OK, bless him. It was hard for him as well, because he didn't know what to say. He kept suggesting things, like going to the Louvre, or going to my aunt's, who lives in Paris. I wasn't really up for anything, but what's done is done. You pick yourself up and get on with it."

It isn't the most original of maxims but it suits the admirable Anne Keothavong perfectly. The conclusion has to be that in tennis terms there will always be people capable of stealing her handbag, but just as certainly, she won't ever give it up without a fight.