It could have been a scene from day one at Wimbledon. Rain was in the air, spectators were shivering in their seats and two British women were in action on adjoining outside courts. The difference, though, was that Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong produced performances full of character to make a winning start on the first day of the Australian Open.
Baltacha, who earned a place in the main draw here through her position at No 55 in the world rankings, came from behind to beat Jamie Hampton, a feisty American qualifier, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 after two and a half hours, three rain breaks and a medical time-out for treatment to a leg injury. Tomorrow Baltacha will play one of only two former champions in the draw, Justine Henin, who beat Sania Mirza 5-7, 6-3, 6-1.
Keothavong, whose fall to No 118 in the world rankings meant she had to win three matches in qualifying just to reach the first round, beat Russia's Arina Rodionova 7-5, 6-4, a result which should take her back into the world's top 100 for the first time since she returned last year following a six-month break with a knee injury. Keothavong will now play Germany's Andrea Petkovic, the world No 33, who beat Jill Craybas 6-1, 6-2.
Baltacha and Keothavong, who were born within a month of each other 27 years ago, have long been the standard bearers for British women's tennis. Both have suffered serious injuries, wilted under the weight of expectation at Wimbledon and contemplated retirement, but both have also demonstrated admirable resilience and worked tirelessly to make the most of their talent. If more of their fellow countrymen and women had shown such application, British tennis would not be in the sorry state it has occupied for so long.
Several members of the England cricket team were among those supporting the two Britons. Baltacha played on Court 10, which has just two rows of seats on two sides and is almost on the perimeter of Melbourne Park. The damp and chilly conditions were not easy, but the British No 1 showed all her experience when she twice went to her chair, complaining that the rain had made the court too slippery. The umpire promptly agreed, to the disgust of Hampton, who tossed two balls away in frustration and muttered "bullshit" as she walked to her seat for the final rain break.
The American, an athletic 21-year-old with a big serve and booming forehand, took the first set with a single break, but Baltacha held her nerve in the belief that the world No 132 would eventually lose hers. At 4-4 in the second set the Briton broke to love before serving out to level the match.
Baltacha broke in the first game of the second set, but dropped her own serve at 4-3. When Hampton served at 5-5 the American complained to the umpire after being double-faulted at 15-15 – "You have no idea what you're talking about, buddy" – and promptly served two more to hand Baltacha the decisive break.
"I remember what it's like as a qualifier – you've earned your spot," Baltacha said. "You're flying high on confidence. You've got nothing to lose. She showed no respect. She went out there and she played loose. In the first set and a half, I felt that I wasn't doing anything wrong. It was just a matter of me trying to hold in there. I knew not to get annoyed. I think my experience just helped me to stay cool and calm. I just let her get herself in a tizz, which she actually did in the third set."
Henin is playing her first tournament since suffering an elbow injury at Wimbledon and says she does not expect to be back at her best for several months. The Belgian said that she had never met Baltacha and could never recall seeing her play. However, Carlos Rodriguez, the former world No 1's coach, was among those watching her next opponent's victory.
Baltacha said she would relish the prospect of playing "one of the great legends". She believes she will have learnt from her experience of 12 months ago, when she was swept aside 6-1, 6-2 by Dinara Safina, then the world No 2, on the main show court here. "You've got to go out there and show no respect," she said. "That's what the girl did today against me. Fair enough. That's what you've got to do.
"I've got to believe that I've got a chance, because otherwise there's no point playing. The chances are probably slim, but on the match day, I'm going to go out and I'm going to fire. I've got nothing to lose."
The lowest moment for Baltacha in 2010 was when she let victory slip from her grasp against Petra Martic at Wimbledon, where no British woman made it past the first round. Keothavong also suffered disappointment at the All England Club, going down to Anastasia Rodionova, the sister of her opponent yesterday.
When she followed that up by losing to Taipei's Yung-Jan Chan at the US Open Keothavong seriously considered quitting, but a conversation with a friend persuaded her to carry on. "She put things into perspective," Keothavong recalled. "Her sister was in a hit-and-run accident and has been left brain-damaged. Looking at the bigger picture, I think the life I'm having is a pretty good one."
Keothavong, who has benefited from time on court with the former British player Jeremy Bates, had to break serve at 4-5 to stay in the first set against Rodionova but, like Baltacha, showed her experience.
The former British No 1 took only three games off Petkovic when they last met three months ago in Linz, but believes she is gradually recovering the form that took her to a career-high No 48 two years ago. "It's been a long process, but I'm getting there," she said. "I think after today's win I'll be back inside the top hundred. I still feel like I can improve and that's what keeps me motivated."Reuse content