Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Australian Open: British girls up for a real fight

It could have been a scene from day one at Wimbledon. Rain was in the air, spectators were shivering in their seats and two British women were in action on adjoining outside courts.

The difference, though, was that Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong produced performances full of character to make a winning start on the first day of the Australian Open.

Baltacha, who earned a place in the main draw here through her position at No 55 in the world rankings, came from behind to beat Jamie Hampton, a feisty American qualifier, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 after two and a half fours, three rain breaks and a medical time-out for treatment to a leg injury.

Tomorrow Baltacha will play one of only two former champions in the draw, Justine Henin, who beat Sania Mirza 5-7, 6-3, 6-1.

Keothavong, whose fall to No 118 in the world rankings meant she had to win three matches in qualifying just to reach the first round, beat Russia's Arina Rodionova 7-5, 6-4, a result which should take her back into the world's top 100 for the first time since she returned last year following a six-month break with a knee injury.

Keothavong will now play Germany's Andrea Petkovic, the world No 33, who beat Jill Craybas 6-1, 6-2.

Baltacha and Keothavong, who were born within a month of each other 27 years ago, have long been the standard bearers for British women's tennis.

Both have suffered serious injuries, wilted under the weight of expectation at Wimbledon and contemplated retirement, but both have also demonstrated admirable resilience and worked tirelessly to make the most of their talent.

Several members of the England cricket team were among those supporting the two Britons. Baltacha played on Court 10, which has just two rows of seats on two sides and is almost on the perimeter of Melbourne Park.

The damp and chilly conditions were not easy, but the British No 1 showed all her experience when she twice went to her chair, complaining that the rain had made the court too slippery.

The umpire promptly agreed, to the disgust of Hampton, who tossed two balls away in frustration as she walked to her seat for the final rain break.

The American took the first set with a single break, but Baltacha held her nerve in the belief that the world No 132 would eventually lose hers. At 4-4 in the second set the Briton broke to love before serving out to level the match.

Baltacha broke in the first game of the second set, but dropped her own serve at 4-3. When Hampton served at 5-5 the American complained to the umpire after being double-faulted at 15-15 — “You have no idea what you're talking about, buddy”— and promptly served two more to hand Baltacha the decisive break.

“I knew not to get annoyed, not to get frustrated. I think my experience just helped me to stay cool and calm.”

Baltacha said she would relish the prospect of playing “one of the great legends”.

“You've got to go out there and show no respect,” she said ahead of the clash with Henin. “I've got to believe that I've got a chance, because otherwise there's no point playing. I've got nothing to lose.”

Keothavong suffered bitter disappointment at Wimbledon, losing to Anastasia Rodionova, the sister of her opponent yesterday.

When she followed that up by losing to Taipei's Yung-Jan Chan at the US Open Keothavong considered quitting, but a conversation with a friend persuaded her to carry on.

Keothavong recalled. “Her sister was in a hit-and-run accident and has been left brain-damaged. Looking at the bigger picture, I think the life I'm having is a pretty good one.”

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