Six months ago Anne Keothavong could hardly have imagined being on the same court as Elena Dementieva. In the US Open here last night, however, the British No 1 gave the Olympic champion the sort of stringent examination she could barely have expected from a 24-year-old who broke into the world's top 100 only this summer.
Dementieva won their third-round match 6-3, 6-4, but the scoreline did not do justice to Keothavong's spirited display. Just as she had in the previous two rounds against Alexa Glatch and Francesca Schiavone, the Londoner hit the ball with a freedom that belied her lack of experience.
Having played her earlier matches to the background of constant noise on the outside courts, Keothavong coped impressively with what could have been an unnerving experience in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second of the main show arenas, even if it was less than a third full at the start.
The Briton is at her best when going for her shots and once again did not hold back, especially on her crunching forehand. Dementieva, the world No 5, is a superb athlete who hits the ball hard and flat, but Keothavong fought fire with fire. "She played really well," Dementieva said afterwards. "She certainly wasn't afraid to hit the ball pretty hard."
In the end the differences were Keothavong's greater ratio of unforced errors – 38 compared to Dementieva's 22 – and the Russian's assurance on the bigger points. Both players had 10 break points: Dementieva converted six and her opponent only three.
On the night before the match the Briton and her coaches, Claire Curran and Nigel Sears, had eaten at the same French restaurant that had brought her good fortune before the previous rounds. "It was a bit embarrassing," Keothavong said. "It wasn't very busy, but there were people sitting where we usually sit, so I had to walk out while Claire asked them to move. I was too embarrassed to ask myself, but they were very nice about it. They moved, though it obviously didn't work."
Keothavong got off to an erratic start, dropping her serve to 15 in the opening game, but it was soon clear that this would be no meek surrender. From 40-15 down in the next game she went on the attack and broke back immediately, only to drop serve twice more as Dementieva won the set in 34 minutes.
When the Russian took a 3-1 lead in the second set it seemed the end might be swift, but Keothavong responded admirably, breaking twice to lead 4-3. Even when Dementieva levelled at 4-4 Keothavong had chances to break again, but the Russian held firm and eventually converted her third match point with a backhand winner.
The Briton will climb into the world's top 70 for the first time after her results here, but even though she was happy with her week's work she felt she could have done better. "I hit too many errors on routine shots," she said. "I created opportunities for myself, but I just didn't play those points the way I would have liked to.
"I can compete with these girls. I don't think the gaps are as big as I once thought. I know what I need to work on. I can go back home now, get stuck in and work on those things. I feel like I can climb the rankings. I feel the next stage for me is to break into the top 50."
At the start of the tournament Dementieva was one of six women who could end the fortnight as world No 1. Ana Ivanovic could yet hold on to top spot, despite her second-round exit, but the No 3, Svetlana Kuznetsova, beaten yesterday by Katarina Srebotnik, is out of the running. In contrast, the top three in the men's singles all went through to the third round in straight sets, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic beating Ryler DeHeart, Thiago Alves and Robert Kendrick respectively.
Andy Murray is now the last Briton left in singles competition. The world No 6 plays his third-round match this afternoon against Jurgen Melzer in what will be a taste of things to come when Britain meet Austria at Wimbledon next month in a Davis Cup World Group relegation play-off. John Lloyd, Britain's Davis Cup captain, named his team yesterday. Murray and Alex Bogdanovic will play singles, with two doubles specialists, Jamie Murray and Ross Hutchins, completing the line-up.