Keothavong plays down hype and raises the hope

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The Independent Online

It is, in theory, the start of the story that British tennis has been awaiting for decades: an authentic working-class hero (preferably with an ethnic background) emerges from the inner city to become a champion and change the face of the sport.

Anne Keothavong, a 17- year-old with Asian parents, winner of the British Under-18 title, from a council flat in east London, would seem to have achieved the first part of that fairytale. This week she steps out at Wimbledon as one of seven promising young Britons given a wild card.

"Residence: Hackney" certainly sticks out in the Lawn Tennis Association's official biographies, amid the girls from Thames Ditton, Walton and Windlesham (Surrey's women must be unbeatable); and tales of potholed local courts do not figure in the life story of Bournemouth's Virginia Wade or Oxford's Tim Henman. Throw in a younger sibling also keen on the game and one newspaper could not resist the headline "Hackney's answer to the Williams sisters". But that tag embarrassed Keothavong almost as much as the notion that natural ability with a tennis racket has somehow saved her from a life of poverty, deprivation and tower-block squalor.

"I really wouldn't say that," she demurs in an accent sufficiently well modulated to disqualify her immediately from a part in EastEnders. "Growing up, I played in parks, I played at tennis centres and private clubs, and never had a problem with it."

The real picture is that of a well-spoken, well-qualified (seven GCSEs and now A- level maths on a correspondence course) and remarkably well-balanced teenager; the daughter of a Barclays Bank employee who first went to Wimbledon in 1978, soon after arriving in England from his native Laos, and later encouraged his children to play short tennis on days out at the Michael Sobell Centre in Islington. Summer holiday tournaments at Highbury Fields confirmed a talent for the game; at 14 Anne was quarter-finalist in an international event, the following year semi-finalist in the Under-16 national championships at Telford, and by 16 was winning the Under-18 title.

Such is the hothouse nature of women's tennis that by that age players with serious intentions need to have a world ranking. Keothavong's is now 282, which should be reduced after September, when she turns 18 and gets to play full-time with the big girls. She has beaten a German, Miriam Schnitzer, ranked in the top 120, and has set a place in the top 100 as an achievable goal. At Wimbledon she will play a qualifier, Janet Lee, armed with the statistic that three qualifiers out of four, primed for the tournament by a successful week on grass, win their first-round match.

Asked to describe herself, the adjectives she comes up with are "determined, ambitious, honest, hard-working" which must be music to the ears of any coach. Alan Jones, who works with her at the LTA centre at Welwyn, endorses that assessment and adds some compliments of his own: "I would have Anne play for my life. She's a single-minded young lady, who'll give you a pound of flesh. She's competitive, a big modern-style striker of the ball, a heavy hitter who can win from behind as well as in front, which is important. Potentially a good serve, but hasn't got quite the rhythm to sit with it yet, and needs to become more sharp in her thinking and her footwork."

Doing something about the image of a white, middle-class sport played in private clubs has at last become the LTA's intention under their French director of performance, Patrice Hagelauer, and choosing Ian Wright to front the launch of their first City Tennis Club in Anne's manor at Clissold Park, Stoke Newington, recently, was a way of publicly challenging the stereotype.

It would be splendid for Keothavong to prove a standard-bearer of sorts; but labelling her as the future of British tennis – or the new Venus in blue jeans - would be grotesquely unfair.

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