Wood puts troubles behind her

Simon O'Hagan sees the British No 1 overcome adversity to regain her title
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The Independent Online
CLARE WOOD, the British No 1, rounded off a year she would otherwise prefer to forget by winning her third national championship yesterday, overcoming the disappointingly lame challenge of Samantha Smith 6-2 6-2 in a final that never really took off.

The winner here in 1989 and 1993, the 27-year-old from Sussex had too much experience for her Essex opponent, who at 23 is still feeling her way back into the sport after taking three years out to study for a history degree at Exeter University, graduating in the summer.

Wood's career too has been marked by a lengthy period in which she was unable to play to her full capability, although this was much less of her own choosing. In July last year, playing in a meaningless friendly match, she tore a hamstring so badly that it put her out of the game for two months and the injury has never completely healed.

Having risen to a career-high 77 in the world rankings in May 1994, Wood had slipped back into the 200s by the time she had got sufficiently over the injury to make a proper stab at the game again earlier this year. But she remained restricted in her movement, and it was reflected in a disappointing summer in which she had four successive first-round defeats leading up to and including Wimbledon.

Even here, she said, she was only 90 per cent fit, adding that her right leg would always be a problem to some degree. "This was a positive step for me," she said. "But I still need a lot of speed and fitness. By the end of the year I will probably be as strong as I will ever be on it.''

Unfortunately for Smith, she never gave herself a chance to exploit this weakness in Wood's game. Having done well to get as far as this, she turned in an error-strewn performance in which her forehand, usually her best shot, missed the target time and again. The result was that Wood, who broke Smith in the first game of each set, pretty much only had to keep the ball in play to win the points. Injured or not, she has been around too long to let go of such basic principles as that.

"She made it difficult for me," Smith said. "It's back to the drawing- board with my forehand. It let me down for the first time this week. But I'm delighted with the way I've come back. It couldn't have been better. But you can't just eradicate three years out of the game.''