O'Brien glad to leave baked beans at home

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The Independent Online

Katie O'Brien must be thinking how peaceful everything is here at the Australian Open. Nobody demanded £900 in cash before she got on the plane; there have been no bodies lying in the road en route to the tennis centre; police escorts are not necessary; and she has not gone down with food poisoning or a tropical disease.

Those have been some of the snapshots from O'Brien's life over the last six years as she has toiled her way around the lower levels of the international circuit. Those travels have brought their reward. Having broken into the world's top 100 last year, the 23-year-old from Hull is enjoying more regular visits to the major stopping points on the women's tour.

This week she appears for the first time in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament without having had to qualify or benefit from a wild card. In the first round she plays Austria's Patricia Mayr, who is ranked three places lower at No 90.

"You come somewhere like here or any of the tournaments on the main circuit and it's so different to the events at Challenger level," O'Brien said. "It's a different world and really makes me appreciate what I'm doing."

O'Brien's itinerary in recent years reads like a backpacker's diary. She has travelled, often alone, to such unlikely tennis outposts as Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Africa and Nigeria.

Her first trip to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent came after she was offered the rare opportunity of a place in the main draw of a tour event. "Uzbek Airlines were the only company that I could find who flew there, but the travel agent told me they didn't have a website or ticket office and you had to buy your ticket from their counter at Heathrow, which was open just three hours before the flight," she said.

"When I got there they only had business class available, the fare was £900 and they would only accept cash. I had one out-of-date debit card and two credit cards on which I could only draw out a certain amount. I was in tears, calling home and wondering what on earth I could do. In the end I went to one travel exchange and got some money out and they told me to go to another one and do the same. It was worth all the trouble because I made it into the quarter-finals."

The Tashkent experience underlined to O'Brien the importance of including tins of tuna and baked beans in her luggage. "Players were dropping like flies because the hygiene was terrible," she said. "Everybody was getting food poisoning. I was OK but when I got home I was so ill. I think I picked up some tropical disease."

Police escorts took the players to the site when O'Brien played in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, while the route to the venue was even scarier in the Nigerian capital of Lagos. "There were actually bodies lying in the streets," she said. "I don't know whether they were people who'd been run over or what, but they were just lying there at the side of the road."

The most intimidating crowd O'Brien has encountered was in China, where she was beaten in the Changsha final by a local player. "There was no etiquette whatsoever," she said. "It was like an absolute riot. I'm a pretty good competitor generally, but on that occasion I couldn't leave the court fast enough. But those experiences toughen you up in the end."

For all the character-building that such a life brought, O'Brien was still 60 places off her goal of breaking into the top 100 at the start of last year's Australian Open and she was thinking that 2009 might be her last season. "I didn't want to be spending years just drifting on the circuit," she said.

Having started a Business Studies degree at the Open University, she was beginning to think about life after tennis. However, qualifying for the year's first Grand Slam event led to her most productive season, culminating in a top-100 breakthrough at the same time as her fellow Briton, Elena Baltacha, after they met in the final of a tournament in Shrewsbury.

"Doing well here [by reaching the Australian Open, in which she lost in the first round to Monica Niculescu of Romania] took the pressure off," O'Brien said. "If it was going to be my last year I just decided that I would enjoy it for what it was. I did and that's what I want to do again this year.

"I can be quite highly strung and put a lot of pressure on myself. I just want to chill out and enjoy it."