Anne Keothavong is growing accustomed to mixing with the tennis elite. Having climbed to No 53 in the world rankings, the 25-year-old from Hackney is a playerfor any opponent to beware. She is making her first appearance in the main draw at the Australian Open and is relishing the thought of taking on Anna Chakvetadze, a former world No 5, on tomorrow's opening day.
There are times, nevertheless, when the big names can seem intimidating, as Keothavong discovered at a tournament in California last summer. "I was on the practice court, just sorting out some stuff in my bag," the British No 1 recalled yesterday. "Serena Williams walked straight up to me and said, in that funny voice she does, 'I used to think you were a nice girl'. I thought, 'What is she talking about?' She repeated it and I said to her, 'I am a nice girl'. At the same time I was thinking, 'Where is this going? Is she winding me up?'
"Then out of nowhere she said, 'You made Venus's ear bleed'. I said, 'Did I? When?' She was talking about my match against Venus at Wimbledon last summer. I said, 'I didn't mean to hit her in the face. The ball was there and I just hit it. I was expecting her to move'. It certainly wasn't intentional. I told Serena, 'It couldn't have been that bad. Venus did win the tournament. I probably did her a favour'.
"I was waiting for Serena to start laughing, and eventually she did. I think I did convince her that I am a nice girl, though Venus did have to see the doctor that week and her ear was bleeding. Serena was very kind to me for the rest of the week, so I'm sure she must have been winding me up. But it was a very odd moment."
Twelve months ago, the closest Keothavong might have got to mingling with the Williams sisters would have been at Wimbledon, thanks to a perennial wild card, or in the week before another of the Grand Slam tournaments as she tried in vain to qualify. Having begun last year at No 132 in the rankings, she failed to qualify at the Australian Open for the fifth time, losing to the world No 155.
However, years of hard work finally started to pay off last spring as Keothavong enjoyed some success on the second-tier International Tennis Federation circuit. After winning a tournament in Lebanon – which she left with an armed escort after 40 people died during clashes between Hezbollah and Sunni fighters just 10 miles away – Keothavong became the first British woman to break into the world's top 100 this century.
It earned her direct entry into Wimbledon, where she lost to Venus Williams after a battling display on Centre Court, and the US Open, where she became the first British woman for 17 years to reach the third round before going out to Elena Dementieva,the Olympic champion.
Now Keothavong feels at home in such company. She has carried on where she left off at the end of last season, when she won the biggest tournament of her career in Krakow. In her two tournaments so far this year she has matched her best performance by reaching a main-tour semi-final in Auckland, and has beaten Agnes Szavay, the world No 25, in Hobart.
"With the way I'm playing now I feel comfortable being at the bigger tournaments," she said. "Just not having to go through the qualifying rounds gives you confidence. You're a part of the main event. Being at the big tournaments and being able to practise with some of the higher-ranked girls helps to show you where you're at. You challenge yourself in different ways. It opens your eyes. The level is higher and you're always striving to improve. It's more intense.
"It's the intensity of the top players that strikes you most, the way they maintain a high level day in and day out. I can get to a certain level myself,but doing that match after match is tiring, physically and mentally. Pushing yourself every day seems to be automatic for the top girls, and that's why they're where they are and what I'm trying to work towards.
"I want to be more consistent, to challenge myself in different areas. I've done that, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. I'm a long way from where I want to be."
Keothavong believes that working with Dr Richard De Souza, a GP in Kent with an interest in sports psych-ology, has strengthened her mentally."It's one of the things that's helped get me to where I am at the moment," she said. "I've been working on my forehand and my serve, but those are things that you never stop working on. What I've done more work on is the mental side of my game, building up more belief and confidence in my tennis. I've still got to learn how to handle the big moments better, but that will come the more I put myself in that situation."
The match against Dementieva in New York last summer was a case in point. "I went out there and tried to do too much. I ended up being way too erratic. I really believe the more opportunities I have to play against these players and to practise against them the better feel I will have of the level and won't try too hard. Sometimes you can want something too much and you just try too much. That was the case in Auckland last week, when I lost my semi-final. When you try too hard your body tightens up. You just have to find a way to control your emotions."
Keothavong agrees that in the past she could be intimidated by some big-name opponents. "I used to put the top girls on a pedestal and think the gap between them and myself was so big that I would question whether it was possible for me to beat them. I was doubting my own tennis when I shouldn't have. I'm more than capable of keeping up with those girls, both physically and technically. It's just about being mentally stronger and having that belief. Those top girls have it. Serena and Venus Williams don't ever talk about being a bad player. They big themselves up the whole time."
If Britain's female tennis players had a collective inferiority complex until recently, that has all changed in the last year. Their progress has been emphasised here in Melbourne with four Britons in the main draw, the most at any Grand Slam tournament outside Wimbledon since Jo Durie, Sara Smith, Sara Gomer, Monique Javer and Clare Wood played at the Australian Open 17 years ago.
Mel South, now the world No 102, earned direct entry into the main draw, where she plays Marion Bartoli, while Elena Baltacha (134) and Katie O'Brien (160) secured their places by winning their third qualifying matches in succession yesterday. Baltacha, who now plays Germany's Anna-Lena Groenefeld, overcame the top seed in qualifying, Jelena Kostanic Tosic, 6-1 6-3, while O'Brien beat Betina Jozami 6-0 7-6 to earn a first-round encounter with Romania's Monica Niculescu.
"We all get on, but it's very competitive between us," Keothavong said. "We all train out of the NationalTennis Centre at Roehampton, and when you see someone training on the running machine you want to go a little level higher. That's only healthy. We spur each other on. It's very competitive, but that's what you need."
Having broken into the world's top 80, Keothavong ended her 2008 season early in November and did not go chasing ranking points on the ITF circuit as she has in the past. It meant she was able to spend more than six weeks at home in Hackney enjoying her mother's Laotian cooking; her parents fled war-torn Laos in the 1970s to settle in Britain.
It was also a chance to indulge her passion for bouldering – rock-climbingwithout ropes or harnesses. "One of the biggest climbing centres in the country is just five or 10 minutes away from me," she said. "I did fall off a few times, but there are mats at the bottom. It's another different way of working out. It keeps me interested and it's another challenge."
Keothavong regrets having few opportunities to practise another of her favourite pastimes, kick-boxing. "I have a bit of a martial arts background," she said. "When I was younger I did a lot of taekwondo as well as tennis. I also came across a kick-boxing school in Islington and I really enjoyed it.
"It's good for your flexibility and I really wish I could find more time to do it. It's not the easiest thing to do, though, and if I started walking around with a black eye I'd probably get asked a few questions."
She added: "I think every girl should be able to learn self-defence, especially if you're living in London. I've done a lot of travelling on public transport on my own from a young age, and that was one of the reasons why my parents felt that it was important that I knew self-defence. I've never had to use it, but when you're on your own it does give you confidence."
Life and times
Name: Anne Keothavong.
Born: 16 September 1983 in Hackney to parents from Laos. She attended Kingsland High School.
Vital stats: 5ft 9in, 9st 10lb.
Early life: Grew up playing park tennis on Hackney Downs and Highbury Fields.
Other interests: Music, reading, fashion, bouldering, comedy and kick-boxing.
Favourite surface: Hard courts.
Favourite tournament: Wimbledon.
Coaches: Claire Curran, Nigel Sears.
Career: Made debut on International Tennis Federation tour in 1999. Currently British No 1 and ranked 53 in the world. She has won 17 ITF singles titles and four doubles titles. Twice reached semi-finals on main women's tour. At Wimbledon last year she was the first British woman to gain entry on her own merit since 1998, losing in the second round to eventual champion Venus Williams. She then became the first British woman to reach the third round of the US Open since Jo Durie in 1991.
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