The All England via everywhere else

Emily Webley-Smith roamed five continents in search of ranking points to make her Wimbledon dream come true
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The Independent Online

Most people reach Wimbledon by Tube, car or the No 493 bus. Emily Webley-Smith used almost every mode of transport known to man as she travelled to the All England Club via Almaty (Kazakhstan), Muzaffarnagar (India), Mildura (Australia), Wenshan (China) and Kurume (Japan) on a journey punctuated by stopovers to recover from deep vein thrombosis, dengue fever, three ankle operations and one on a wrist. No wonder it took seven years to find her way back to SW19.

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If anyone suggests British players lack guts, they should consider the story of Webley-Smith, a bubbly 26-year-old from Bristol. As a teenager, she won a play-off for a Wimbledon wild card in 2004. In the finest week of her career she beat France's Séverine Beltrame, the world No 94, before losing in the second round to Amy Frazier, the world No 36.

The closest Webley-Smith came to playing at Wimbledon again was via the qualifying tournament, but in four attempts she never won a match. With her career regularly interrupted by illness and injury, the dream of going back looked likely to remain unfulfilled until last November. In full health at last, she set out on a 26-week round-the-globe trip in search of the ranking points to earn a wild card.

British players usually have to be ranked in the world's top 250 to win wild cards. Webley-Smith was No 502 when she began her six-month journey but improved by accumulating points at obscure outposts.

You need about 220 points to make the top 250 players on the world rankings list. While a trip to Wenshan (central China) yielded Webley-Smith just one ranking point (defeat in the second qualifying round), there was compensation in journeys to places like Muzaffarnagar (north of Delhi) and Gifu (central Japan), which brought returns of 14 points (lost in quarter-finals) and 50 points (beaten finalist) respectively.

By the middle of May, Webley-Smith had reached No 253 in the rankings, three places short of her target. On the day the Wimbledon committee met to decide their wild cards she climbed to No 247. Destination reached, she will play at Wimbledon this week, with the Czech Republic's Klara Zakopalova her first-round opponent.

Webley-Smith believes that playing for a prolonged spell without interruption sparked the upturn in her career. Until last year she had had several lengthy breaks, including one after contracting dengue fever in India. "It's not dissimilar to malaria," she recalled. "I've never felt as ill in my whole life."

Even more seriously, she suffered deep vein thrombosis in Australia in 2009. The cause was either an ankle injury, for which she was due to have surgery the following day, or the long flight Down Under.

"The family I was staying with found me unconscious on the floor," she said. "The hospital reckoned I had passed out because of the pain. I just thought it was something to do with the ankle injury. They found a blood clot in my calf. I had to stay in Australia for four months, mostly in hospital."

Undeterred, Webley-Smith was soon back on her travels. "I choose my programme because I want specifically to play outdoors on hard courts. I do much better when the sun is on my back."

Webley-Smith's ranking has not been high enough to earn financial support from the Lawn Tennis Association, though the governing body pays her small bonuses for her results. She is paid for some coaching work and as the tennis editor of a sports website but otherwise relieson prize money. In the last year her biggest cheque was $1,520 (about £940). Even if she loses in the first round at Wimbledon she will earn £11,500.

Food, travel and accommodation – she makes all her own bookings – have to be paid for at most tournaments. "At least it's very cheap to live at the sort of places I go to. People's perceptions of tennis players' lives are certainly very different to the reality. The hotel I stayed at in India in the first tournament of my trip was £6 a night – and it was the best in town. You also have to get used to some unusual food. I remember being served chicken's feet for breakfast in China."

Webley-Smith usually travels on her own, often to the understandable concern of her parents. At Muzaffarnagar, a five-hour taxi ride from Delhi, armed guards accompanied the players on their 500-yard journey from the hotel to the grass courts because of local violence. She is sometimes the only European competitor. "The women's tour can be a lonely place," she said. "The girls don't mix as well as the guys do, though thankfully I'm someone who likes my own company."

Sustained by her eventual goal of playing in the main draw at all four Grand Slam events, Webley-Smith said she had no worries about wilting under any pressure at the All England Club, especially as she loves playing on grass. "When you look at the conditions at some of the tournaments I've been to, it will be an absolute privilege to play at Wimbledon," she said.

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