As the DFS Classic prepares to get under way in Birmingham, British No?1 Anne Keothavong explains how reaching the top 100 has not ended her ambition. Brian Dick reports.
Anne Keothavong will never forget winning the biggest title of her career in Jounieh last month but not so much for what happened during her time on court in Lebanon as the events the surrounded her attempts to leave the troubled country.
During the week she spent battling her opponents to a standstill on the sapping red surface, including victories over Spaniards Marta Marrero and Lourdes Dominguez Lino, whose feet were both made not of clay but for it, fighting broke out between Hezbollah and Shia militia that closed Beirut airport.
As a result Keothavong had to find another route home for herself, her $7,000 winner’s cheque and the 45 vital ranking points that fulfilled a lifetime ambition of reaching the world’s top 100.
It seemed her way was barred at every turn. The idea, floated by a couple of French players, to escape by boat to Cyprus did not hold water while attempts to flee overland to Damascus were frustrated by the fact the border with Syria had been shut.
As the missiles rained down not far away the young Briton was forced to seek help at the Spanish embassy and was given a police escort to the Syrian capital where she waited a day and a half for the flight out that ended an alarming experience.
“I was frightened for my safety because I didn’t really understand what was going on and the fighting was only a couple of miles away,” Keothavong said. “I had to rely on other people and that’s not a nice situation.
“Where we were you wouldn’t have had an idea anything was wrong, but, of course, it was an anxious time because there was no way to know that the trouble wasn’t going to spread.”
To make things worse she was there without a coach having split from her Lawn Tennis Appointed mentor Simon Walsh earlier in the year. Since then the green shoots of a recovery have not just germinated, they have begun to bear fruit.
The title in Jounieh was the third of 2008 following a victory in Spain and one on carpet in Capriolo, Italy. She also reached the final in Patras without dropping a set.
Add to those results an astonishing Fed Cup campaign in which Great Britain struggled but their top player won all four of her singles matches and it is clear to see why she has become the first Briton for nine years to earn a place in the main draw at Wimbledon instead of being given one.
“I started working with Simon last year and things for one reason or another did not turn out as I thought they would and I decided it was not for me,” she said. “I am 24 years old, I have been around quite a while so I always knew I would manage.
“In the longer term I am on the lookout for a full time coach but things have gone well for the last couple of months. It is tough, but I am a tough girl.”
She has not, however, turned her back on the LTA completely. She is still based at the National Tennis Centre where she has access to experts in most fields and where she is around her domestic rivals, Katie O’Brien and Elena Baltacha, who drive her on.
Her current ranking of 96 not only put her into the main draw at the All England Club but has freed her of what she describes as ‘the monkey on my back’ and provided her with an opportunity to secure more points and further access into the sport’s biggest competitions.
Sadly, however, neither the DFS Classic nor her home Grand Slam are happy hunting grounds. Her record in Birmingham is just one win, over Marrero in 2004, from seven attempts while Wimbledon has also produced just a single victory – against Nicole Pratt the same year.
But, as confident people do, the Hackney-born right-hander is looking at the next fortnight as an opportunity and not a threat. “I am not defending any ranking points so there is an opportunity to improve further,” she said.
“The next step is to get inside the top 75 and go from there again but I know it’s going to get harder rather than easier.”
But if she can find a way out of a war zone, anything is possible.