Excellent, my favourite time of year. Incessant rain, over-priced soft fruit and a feeding frenzy so savage even the hungriest piranha would stand back in admiration. The grass court season is upon us, unleash the dogs of war.
But what’s this? A British woman inside the world’s top 100. Five inside the top 200 and 11 of the leading 15 domestic females at a career high. Better hope some lavishly funded truculent teenager says or does something indiscrete, otherwise we in the media will have to muzzle our dogs and find something new to write about.
Let’s be clear about this, Anne Keothavong is not about to deprive Virginia Wade of her claim to fame as the last English winner of a Wimbledon singles title. Four-fifths of those top 200 players will still require wild cards to gain access to their home Grand Slam and the chances of any Briton coming through qualifying at Roehampton are, as ever, pretty remote.
Yet this year’s conversation with Nigel Sears does not require the usual leap of faith that things beneath the surface are improving. The man whose LTA security pass identifies him as the Head Coach of Women’s Tennis, actually has tangible evidence to argue his case and his 2008 Performance Review with his boss at the National Tennis Centre, Carl Maes, should be reasonably pleasurable experience.
“There are definite signs of progress,” Sears says. “Anne has reached the benchmark of the top 100, Katie O’Brien is nearly there, Elena Baltacha has won a couple of tournaments recently and Mel South has done really well.
“It’s an exciting time in the women’s game. The stats have improved out of sight in the last 12 months.”
Keothavong has made the biggest strides. By reaching 96 in the world the national No?1 became the first British woman to qualify by right for the main draw at Wimbledon this millennium. Sam Smith was the last to achieve that in 1999.
She won the biggest title of her career, on clay of all surfaces, in Jounieh last month and once again progressed well at Surbiton. If she could get through a couple of rounds at Edgbaston Priory she could break into the top 90. Heady days for a 24-year-old whose career seemed destined to meander aimless from one satellite tournament to the next.
O’Brien stands at 112 in the world though she will not be sorry to leave the clay behind her as she strives to repeat last year’s first round Wimbledon victory over Sandra Kloesel.
She has never won a game at the DFS and the fact she is protecting no ranking points gives her a genuine opportunity to climb the rankings.
In recent years Baltacha’s standing of 144, South’s 145 and possibly even Naomi Cavaday’s 196 would have been enough to have been British No?1. The facts are there and Sears maintains the reasons are clear too.
“Players have had access to a higher level of information across the board. Whether it’s tactical, technical or physical they have been able to speak to somebody who is an expert in that field. It’s not an accident that things have got better – those girls are all based at the National Tennis Centre,” he explains.
“It’s brought about a good feeling of unity and a competitive element. There has almost been a race between Anne and Katie O’Brien to get into the top 100 and we had a fantastic team experience at the Fed Cup.”
Ah the Fed Cup. I wasn’t going to mention the fact Britain that in January Britain lost all their pool matches and had to battle through a relegation decider with Portugal to avoid slipping out of the obscurity of the Europe-Africa Group 1 into Group II and off the radar.
“We needed to survive as going down to Group Two would have been a disaster,” is Sears’ account of the week.
To be fair Britain’s opposition was not easy. Patty Schnyder led Switzerland and Caroline Wozniacki inspired Denmark while the hosts Hungary had all the inspiration they needed in the stands. Three defeats but Keothavong won all of her singles matches.
After several years working with Daniela Hantuchova Sears is realistic enough, however, to know such niceties don’t silence the critics for long. With Wimbledon approaching the dogs are being starved and pens being sharpened in readiness.
“It is OK Anne getting to 96 but the British public do not relate to that,” he admits. “They relate to people getting into the second week of Grand Slams and into the top 30. We have a lot of work to do in that respect.
“To get into the main draw of the Grand Slams you have to be inside the top 110. That means the likelihood is all of our girls will play someone ranked higher.
“On that basis you would be a fool to say our girls are going to make it all the way but that is not to say they don’t have a better chance than they have in recent years.
“There has been a steady, gradual progress and week by week things have got better and that’s been done all over the world in different countries on different surfaces. I am not saying that is a massive improvement but it is significant.”
Perhaps this year’s grass court season could be a little more peaceful.