Keothavong flying flag for British women
Wednesday 25 June 2008
This winning women thing appears to be taking some adjusting to for the paying British public. A solitary elderly man thought to remove his sun hat and someone shouted out: "We love you Anne" after Anne Keothavong, Britain's leading woman and its first since Sam Smith nine years ago to be playing here out of right as a top 100 player, prevailed against Vania King on No 2 court yesterday. It was all rather half-hearted, suggesting that local hopes were not being taken too seriously.
In fact, Keothavong is deadly serious about the assault she is finally making on the upper reaches of the women's game. She does not know how far she can go from here but just penetrating the top 100 has brought untold frustrations in recent years, with six first-round defeats out of seven at Wimbledon for her before yesterday.
Here at last on merit, the Wimbledon draw provided an immediate test of whether Keothavong deserves her status – with King a single place below her at 93rd in the world and a one-time No 50. She proved a point.
But the proof came after a first-set defeat for Keothavong which sent her scurrying away to the locker room, angry and distressed that this was proving just like any other year. "I was in the toilets there and I was shaking because I was just so annoyed with myself," she said later. "I was frustrated about the performance I'd just given in that first set."
But Keothavong has pierced the top 100 bracket for good reason. Her elegant service, with its high, purposeful ball placement, delivered something consistently faster than King's. Consistency went missing at times but there was more evidence here of the current emphasis on physical fitness adopted by the LTA head of women's tennis, Carl Maes, which is behind the ascent of players like Keothavong and Elena Baltacha, who plays Dominika Cibulkova today.
Keothavong found the reserves, when 1-0 and 15-40 down on her own serve at the start of the second set, to take the next five games and win it. King's coach outdid the entire home contingent from the sidelines – "It's going to come back now, come on!" he told her and launched into oriental encouragement for the Taiwanese American.
But Keothavong, 2-0 behind in the deciding set, delivered at the critical moments: perfect geometry for a cross court forehand to go 4-3, and a service-break up; then a 114mph ace at deuce in the next game.
The forehand which sent the Briton to match point was a good two inches out of court but was called good – helping to create a chance of a first Centre Court appearance for her, against Venus Williams in the second round tomorrow.
Keothavong's confidence for that match will have been boosted by victory last month at a tournament in Lebanon less than 10 miles from street fighting between Hizbollah and Shia militia in Beirut which left 40 people dead.
"There was a period where there was a bit of panic," Keothavong said, recalling her hurried departure through Syria after winning the ITF Tour event. "In those kind of situations there's not a lot you can do."
After that lot, the Wimbledon second round seems like a walk in the park.
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