Painful journey from spotlight into shadows

Alexandra Stevenson is hoping to make a fresh start at the scene of her finest moment.
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The Independent Online

In 1999, she was a sensation, the first woman ever to come through Wimbledon's qualifying tournament and go all the way to the semi-final; a headline-maker whose mother, a sports journalist, made news herself by criticising racist attitudes in the locker-room and threatening to sue the All England Club in a dispute over prize money. In the United States, interest redoubled when Julius "Dr J" Erving, the Michael Jordan of his day, acknowledged that he was her estranged father.

Since then, however, the cuttings files have remained unexpectedly thin. For two years it has been necessary to scan the smallest of print to find the name of Alexandra Stevenson, usually in a results list recording either a defeat or a retirement with one of the injuries that have made it impossible to assess whether Wimbledon '99 marked the birth of a star or the zenith of a career.

The women's singles competition that year was initially notable for the form of another unknown with a publicity-prone parent: a 16 year-old Yugoslav-Australian elf called Jelena Dokic, who also slogged her way through qualifying at Roehampton, before drubbing the out-of-sorts No 1 seed Martina Hingis 6-2, 6-0 in the first round. Mary Pierce went the way of Hingis to set up a quarter-final against Stevenson, who prevailed in three sets, then, in her own words, "got a lesson" from the eventual champion Lindsay Davenport in the semi-final.

But while the American, with her big serve and heavy-hitting, was seen, like her friend and contemporary Venus Williams, as the future of women's tennis, it is Dokic, seven inches shorter and more than two stone lighter, who has further improved her reputation and ranking. At the end of Wimbledon, the two young prodigies were bracketed together at 36 and 37 in the world; going into this year's tournament, Dokic is 16th, Stevenson 114th.

Behind that statistic is a lot of pain, from all manner of injuries. After a bright start to 2000, beating a top 10 player (Barbara Schett) for the first time, Stevenson went out in the second round at Wimbledon – and has won only one grand slam tournament match since. A back injury at the US Open was the first problem. "Being young, I didn't know I needed to stop. Then I pulled a hamstring, compensating for the back, and retired from two tournaments. At the Australian Open [in January this year] I had a neck injury, right off the plane and had to have acupuncture."

Unhappy in Florida, "not a good place to be", she returned to her native San Diego, and to a former trainer, Pete Egoscue, who specialises in yoga-like exercises and body-alignment of the sort favoured by Geri Halliwell. "He fixed me in a week. After feeling like an 80 year-old for six months, and seeing every doctor in the world, I finally felt 20 again."

Being unable to play through most of April and May cost more ranking points, and a late summons to the clay of the French Open brought no success after a brief period of practising on hard courts. Back on English grass, Stevenson made news again at Edgbaston when her mother insisted the piano in a nearby marquee stopped playing during her match. Last week at Roehampton she was eliminated in the qualifying rounds.

The only good news was the acceptance of her application for a wild card to Wimbledon, made in characteristic style: "I wrote a really nice letter to Chris Gorringe [the All England Club's chief executive] and told him how much I'd loved Wimbledon, ever since I was a little girl, and what great memories I had."

The reward is a first round match against Italy's Tathiana Garbin, the sort of opponent (ranked 58th) Stevenson routinely brushed aside two years ago. It will offer some clues as to how far her game has gone backwards since then, amid the comings and goings of a clutch of coaches, the latest of whom is the 22 year-old former British hope, James Trotman.

Her ambition now is to win a match on Centre Court, which on current form is asking a lot of the next fortnight even for one of such optimistic outlook. "The last year-and-a-half has been tough but I'm always positive. Some people have said I'm over the hill, but I want to say to them: 'Hello, I'm 20, not 50'. I'm still not at 100 per cent but I feel much better and when I'm 100 per cent I can be the best in the world." Mother, reluctantly but wisely, is keeping mum.

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