Wimbledon 1997: Smith makes a lonely exit

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The Independent Online
The British No 1 lost in straight sets in the first round of the singles yesterday afternoon, but since the match was in the women's tournament the defeat registered barely a blip on the seismograph of national awareness. Sam Smith was beaten 6-1, 6-2 by Naoko Sawamatsu of Japan and trudged off to continue her lonely travels as the only Briton to regularly play WTA Tour events.

The match was on Court No 3, more a peep court than a show court, flanked on one side by a walkway and on the other by a little grandstand, the top layer of which also affords a fine view of Court No 2, which yesterday featured Mary Pierce. It is a measure of the esteem in which women's tennis is held in Britain that many of the crowd turned their backs on Smith to watch the French player instead.

Smith, 25, is a year older than her opponent yesterday, but is ranked some 70 odd places lower on the computer at 121. But such a mathematical gulf will have been no consolation for the north London-based player, who seemed badly out of touch and rarely threatened to make an impression.

It cannot have helped that British fans were comfortably outnumbered by their Japanese counterparts. The greatest threat to Sawamatsu's composure came not from her opponent but from the flash bulbs of her compatriots' cameras.

Smith won the toss and held her first service game comfortably but she was broken in the third game of the first set and thereafter struggled, sitting between games with her brow furrowed, staring at a towel clenched tightly in her hands.

There was little to separate the players in terms of style - neither has an outstanding strength - but Sawamatsu proved the stronger retriever, often conjuring winners from unlikely angles when Smith seemed to have done enough to secure the point.

Too often the Briton would set up a promising position in a rally only to succumb to an unforced error, drifting a sliced backhand long for slamming forehands into the net. She held three break points for a revival at 1- 5 in the first set, but could not convert any of them.

There was a flicker of defiance in the second set when Smith battled back to hold her first service game from 0-40 with two confident aces, and again shortly afterwards when she broke Sawamatsu's serve. But the combination of careful, percentage back hands and vehement forehand winners proved too demanding to sustain, and Smith's confidence visibly drained away.

The Japanese player, who has a fine record in SW19 having reached the fourth round on two previous occasions, started to find corners of the court that were beyond Smith's desperate lunges and quickly wrapped up the match. Smith doffed her headband and strode swiftly off to the locker- room, untroubled and unnoticed by the crowd. Sawamatsu, by contrast, was mobbed. One British fan summed up the patriotic reaction. "I'm off to watch Rusedski," he said.

The crowd around No 3 Court shifts its composition, as fans of different nationalities fill and vacate the unreserved seats according to the changing attractions. Earlier yesterday, the Japanese fans had been joined by a small but vociferous group of Latvians as Larisa Neiland took on another Naoko, this time surnamed Kijimuta. This was a gutsier encounter than Sawamatsu and Smith provided, but once again the Japanese fans were happiest as Naoko Mark 1 prevailed 7-5, 6-2.

Having endured a seemingly interminable wait for a sadly anti-climatic singles debut, Smith must now seek consolation in the doubles, in which she partners Olga Barabanschikova. The Belarussian teenager was another casualty in the singles yesterday, so the pairing will be thirsting for victory.

They may remain parched: they have drawn in the first round the top seeds, Gigi Fernandez and Natalia Zvereva.