Last Post for British women as O'Donoghue sinks to defeat

The standard was lowered while a lone bugler sounded the "Last Post" here yesterday, at least metaphorically, as the solitary remaining British hope in the women's singles, 22-year-old Jane O'Donoghue, of Wigan, Lancashire, was speedily dispatched, 6-2, 6-1, by Nathalie Dechy, of Abimes, Guadeloupe.

It is now seven years since a British woman, Sam Smith, last made it beyond the third round at Wimbledon. Even getting to the third round is, more often than not, a bridge too far. But for a fleeting moment on Court Two, the graveyard of champions looked as if it might become the birthplace of hope.

In the opening game, O'Donoghue looked bouncy and confident, timed her groundstrokes perfectly, and three times had a break point against the 16th seed.

When you carve out chances against an opponent of superior ability, you have to take them. This is what Paul Jewell, manager of O'Donoghue's beloved Wigan Athletic, will be telling his players on the opening day of the 2005-2006 football season, when Wigan play the Premiership champions Chelsea.

All the same, it is tough to be handed formidable opposition on your arrival in the big time, as O'Donoghue will attest. The disparity in class here didn't quite match that between Wigan and Chelsea - Dechy is perhaps more of an Aston Villa or Tottenham Hotspur - but it didn't take long to show. The Frenchwoman managed to hold serve, and then promptly broke O'Donoghue, who kicked off with a pair of double-faults.

She double-faulted eight times in the match, and won a paltry 15 per cent of points on her second serve, not exactly a formula for success against a woman of Dechy's experience and expertise. But they pack them with gristle in Wigan, and I'm not just talking about the pies. With her serve uncharacteristically failing her, and the partisan cries of "c'mon Jane!" being issued more in hope than expectation, O'Donoghue at least hit groundstrokes with authority. Moreover, unlike some women players, she does not approach the net as though it hides a nest of vipers.

Dechy, by contrast, is as committed a baseliner as they come, but she can afford to be, for she has unerring accuracy down the line. However, the scoreline flattered her slightly. O'Donoghue was not as comfortably beaten as 6-2, 6-1 suggests, and in a surprisingly upbeat mood afterwards she insisted that she would benefit from the experience.

"You've got to remember, this girl's, what, 220 places above me," she said. "I mean, for me to step on court against her, you know, it's a big deal. Next week I'll go and play a tournament in Felixstowe in the middle of nowhere and play girls (who are) 500 in the world, who play completely different. No disrespect to them, but you've got to be realistic and think 'wait a minute, 12 months ago, even two months ago, I would not have matched these girls off the ground'. I've improved a lot in the last couple of months."

Enough to have beaten Anna-Lena Groenefeld, the German ranked in the top 100, in round one. And if she continues to improve then she might yet join Paul Jewell's men in making Wigan famous for a sport other than the one with the 13 men and the oval ball. She hopes so. "It would be great if I could raise the profile of tennis in Wigan," she said. "I mean, I never played tennis at school because I was a girl. And that's the attitude in this country. It's very difficult to get girls playing sport. I remember in PE lessons, girls would just give a letter to the teacher, 'I don't want to do it today', just because they weren't interested in sport. I think I was a pain in the arse for my teachers because I was so competitive. Even in rounders I would tell people where to stand."

If O'Donoghue's impeccable competitive instincts can be married to greater consistency then she can go far. Perhaps into the top 100 in the world.

Perhaps even as far as the fourth round at Wimbledon. But she knows it will not be easy. "Rome wasn't built in a day," she said.

And nor was Wigan.

Top 10: British women in world

1 Elena Baltacha

World ranking: No 126

2 Jane O'Donoghue

No 232

3 Anne Keothavong

No 259

4 Amanda Janes

No 266

5 Emily Webley-Smith

No 290

6 Sarah Borwell

No 314

7 Katie O'Brien

No 319

8 Karen Paterson

No 411

9 Rebecca Llewellyn

No 434

10 Claire Peterzan

No 510