Wimbledon 98: Smith graduates to centre stage

Britain's No 1 woman player has jumped the credibility gap with a stylish victory over a former champion.
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YESTERDAY MORNING, by permission of the groundsman, Sam Smith was allowed on Wimbledon's Court One. She is Britain's best women's player, but she has had no experience of playing there before.

While Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski have lifted home tennis out of the comic's repertoire, our women had stayed in the music hall. The line ran Ann Jones, Virginia Wade, Sue Barker Jo Durie, er what's her name. Being British No 1 has been a passport to be being anonymous.

Which, as Smith would acknowledge, was partly down to herself. Wimbledon is where you make your name as far as this country is concerned and she had avoided the limelight with rigorous efficiency. Before this week she had been to Wimbledon five times and failed to win a match, but her success against Conchita Martinez on Saturday has suddenly propelled her into a somebody.

"You win a tennis match and suddenly you're on the front page of a national newspaper," she said. "It's surprising." As much as anything because it was a huge surprise. Anybody who had seen the 26-year-old Smith hobble into a press conference on crutches on Wednesday would have wondered if she would be perpendicular against Martinez, the 1994 champion, never mind defeat her. The 4-1 scoreline in the Spaniard's favour after Friday's first attempt to beat the weather hardly encouraged hope either.

The crowd on Court No 2 seemed to think so too because Smith began on Saturday before a wall of empty seats. This was partly due to an early start, but also because the expectation of failure was not a spur to hurry. A British girl beating a former Wimbledon champion? Come on, pull the other one.

Instead the early comers were able to witness the rebirth of hope in home women's tennis. You waited in anticipation for the classic British outcome, the gallant loser, only for Smith to confound us all. Her 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory was not just a surprise, it owed nothing to fortune. "I thought I'd played well enough to deserve the match," Smith said, "and when I watched the highlights on Saturday night it confirmed it."

You could point to any number of moments when you thought Smith could do it - a comeback from 15-40 in the first game of the second set; breaking back straight away in the third - but the realisation thumped home after Martinez had kept her waiting before a service deep into the deciding set.

You expected Smith to be thrown by this. Instead she played the Spaniard at her own game, going back between points to towel down her face and racket. Her heavily-strapped ankle looked like Rusedski's and so did her mannerisms. "It's so easy to rush things," she said, "to try to force points."

If that makes Smith sound different from the standard British women's tennis player then she is. A promising teenager, she was considering giving up tennis for three years to take a history degree at Exeter when confirmation she had post-viral fatigue syndrome made up her mind for her.

"I was selected for the 1992 Olympics and it wasn't until I went to the Olympic clinic that they realised there was something radically wrong. I wasn't well enough to continue tennis." Her progress since returning, complete with a BA, three years ago will be confirmed when she emerges from Wimbledon with a world ranking in the 60s. Invitations for the big tournaments and potential access to more points beckon.

Suddenly, astonishingly, as much attention will be on Smith on Court One against the 16th seed, Nathalie Tauziat, today as it will be on Tim Henman. "I'll take it in my stride," she said. "I watched how Tim coped with everything a few years ago and learned a lot." Her sabbatical at Exeter will be of assistance, too . "I saw the other side of life. I got away from tennis and maybe my perspective is greater than a lot of other players because of that."

It needs to be. Smith shares the same management as Paul Ince and, when she was on court on Saturday, the England footballer watched the match on television and relayed the action, giving a ball-by-ball commentary over the phone to the agent in his car. As Smith had been buoyed by England's performance against Colombia, it was nice to return the compliment.

Can she now return to Tauziat, unbeaten at the grass-court Edbgbaston tournament for two years, and not be overwhelmed by the support from the crowd? She takes encouragement from the way she blocked out the mounting excitement on Saturday.

"I did notice it at the end, but I kept my mind on the job. A couple of years ago I played Irina Spirlea on that court and I was distracted by the noise, everyone freaking out. I learned a lot from that and put it together against Martinez. Tauziat's a very good player. She's experienced and won a lot of tournaments but I'm playing really well at the moment. I'm not going to be thinking about her I'll just focus on what I have to do. I'll go for it."