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Page last updated at 06:44 GMT, Monday, 28 January 2008

British women finally on the up

By Alistair Magowan

Anne Keothavong
Keothavong's run to her first WTA semi-final was a breakthrough

The big story for British tennis in the coming season will no doubt surround Andy Murray, yet a small but significant step could also occur in the women's game.

In the shadows of Murray's quest to go deep into a Grand Slam event, Britain's top two female players, Katie O'Brien and Anne Keothavong are quietly edging towards the world's top 100.

It might not be an achievement to match Murray's but for women's tennis in this country it would represent a releasing of the shackles after years of negativity.

And sadly for one of the pair, it could signify a timely reminder of what might have been.

It is now 10 years since Britain last had a female in the top 100, when former British number one Sam Smith made it as high as 65 in 1998.

Katie O'Brien
Born: May 2 1986, Yorkshire
Turned pro: 2004
Ranking: British No. 1; WTA ranking 123*, highest 121
2007 achievements: Winning first round match at Wimbledon; reaching WTA quarter-final at Tashkent
*As at 28 January 2008

Since then, a number of players like Keothavong, now 24, and Elena Baltacha have tried to make the breakthrough and they are now being joined by a younger breed in O'Brien, 21, Mel South, Naomi Cavaday and Natasha Khan.

That group is also being backed by a new coaching set-up, which changed last year as part of the LTA's overhaul, and the prospect of a promising collection of younger players led by Kim Clijsters' former coach, Carl Maes.

Keothavong had her best year yet in 2007 and looked likely to break into the top 100 when a freak rib injury curtailed her season in November.

But the time off gave her the chance to reflect on a period in which she says she has played "some of the best tennis of my career", coinciding with her first WTA semi-final in India.

"Breaking the top 100 is my big goal," she told BBC Sport.

BBC Sport's Alistair Magowan

"There are a few of us who are capable and once one of us does it, we'll all be able to say, 'if she can do it why can't I?'

"I don't think it is out of my reach at all and I've got the game to be there. It is just a matter of time and it will be something off my back once I manage to do it.

"Getting to the semi-final in India gave me a huge amount of confidence and it was a bit of breakthrough for me to do that at a (WTA) Tour event.

"It was the last thing I expected because at the event I'd eaten something dodgy so I wasn't feeling too good and I was on my own because my coach didn't manage to get a visa."

Anne Keothavong
If you've got people putting you down all the time, it's going to have an effect on your tennis and your career

Anna Keothavong on her coaching early in her career

Although her coach, Simon Walsh, didn't make it to Kolkata his presence on tour has been a huge factor in hauling Keothavong closer to her goal.

But perhaps more important than being her companion and working hard on her serve and fitness, it is the nature of Walsh's approach that has helped rekindle Keothavong's spirit.

She describes Walsh as "very positive and refreshing" and credits mental expert Richard De Souza as improving her focus in matches.

Sat in the new National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, it is a far cry from her junior years when she spent hours on the courts of north London being told that she had to play in a certain way because her game was not good enough.

"I would have loved to have been given the information I know now when I was younger," she said. "It would have been good to have had a bit more direction when I was 16, 17, 18.

"I definitely would have done things differently. You need positive people around you and you need motivators.

"If you've got people putting you down all the time, it's going to have an effect on your tennis and your career.

"I think things could have been done better but when you're that age you don't know any better so you just listen to what you're being told and go with it.

"I worked with people who were negative and then you start to question yourself. 'Can I do this? Can I do that?' where in fact I think I was very much capable of doing those things.

Anne Keothavong
Born: Sep 6 1983, London
Turned pro: 2001
Ranking: British No. 2; WTA ranking 135*, highest 118
2007 Achievements: Reaching WTA semi-final at Kolkata, won Vancouver ITF
*As at 28 January 2008

"I just had to be pushed to do it in the right way - not be told 'you can't do it so you have to play this way. It's either this way or nothing'.

"You should be able to create your own way and at that age have someone to help you work it out - not put you down."

However bittersweet it may be, Keothavong's career could yet turn out to be a motivating one for those who will eventually surpass her.

In the meantime, her junior colleagues would do well to take heart from Keothavong's quest to finally make her mark.

"What I like to have are people who are positive around me and who can help push me," she said.

"I don't think anyone can question my desire because it's there: cracking the top 100.

"The people I work with know how desperate I am to do that and the people I work with also know how hard I work.

"I have a goal that I want to work towards and I want to achieve. There's really no time to waste."

Those involved in British tennis would hope that Keothavong's story is not a waste too.

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see also
Britons close on Melbourne places
11 Jan 08 |  Tennis
Keothavong reaches Kolkata semis
21 Sep 07 |  Tennis
O'Brien well beaten in Tashkent
05 Oct 07 |  Tennis
British women get rankings boost
09 Jul 07 |  Tennis

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