27 June 2008

Within four minutes Anne Keothavong was 0-2 down having taken just one point. The phrase “embarrassing mismatch” was in the notebook and one wondered if the word “steamrollered” could be applied to someone flattened by as long and lean a thing as Venus Williams. The crowd was hushed and frightened. Our Anne was not.

After losing the opening set of her first-round match Anne had been so upset that she took a toilet break and was almost too nervous to return. Having roused herself to win through to this second round, she was determined to bring that fight with her on to the Centre Court. She didn’t just want to face Venus Williams, she wanted to beat her. It was to take all of an hour and 40 minutes for the three times champion to prove her wrong, winning 7-5, 6-2.

Suddenly she was not giving Venus time on her shots, or concession on the rallies. In the third game she broke back. In the fourth she levelled to 2-2 and then in the fifth embarked on an epic counter attack in which Venus was forced to save eight break points, three of them with serves that handsomely topped 120 mph. What had been a small kernel of disbelief in the champion’s invincibility became a full-grown possibility that the composed young woman from Hackney was prepared to mix Miss Williams hit for hit.

At one stage it even got to the point of unintentionally volleying into her opponent’s face. Of course the great Williams wings were always likely to sweep those big forehands as devastatingly out of reach as she had done twice in the first game, and the sight of this white-visored destroyer standing inside the baseline to receive service is intimidation with a racquet. But Keothavong moved fast and forced so hard that there were times when the long Williams arms hung a bit listlessly down as she trudged back with a touch of concrete in her feet.

At 6-5 and 15-30 on Anne’s service the 24 year old, whose parents fled here from Laos during the Vietnam war, won her way back to 30 all at the end of sustained rally with a curled forehand stop volley which was the shot of the match. The crowd erupted in delight convinced that a tie-break and its attendant chances was but a couple of points away. It wasn’t. Anne completely bished her next serve, Venus pounced on the next and the set was over.

The score card states that Keothavong only got two more games but she played better and Williams worse than this suggests. Nonetheless it records clearly how much more work is needed if Anne is to climb, as she confidently suggested afterwards, from the top 100 to the top 50 and above even that.

“You know,” she said in the interview, “I really believed that I could have won that match today.” In the context it could sound like a structured sound bite but it was the same thing she had said to her former doubles partner Clare Curran in the immediate anger of defeat. “It is that sort of fight that is taking Anne forward,” said Clare of her protégée. “She and Elena Baltacha were semi finalists in Junior Wimbledon 6 years ago. It’s not a bad achievement but in the big world it counts for nothing. I think there has been a danger amongst our girls of taking comforts for granted. Anne’s background and experience has made her realise that you have to make your own luck.”

Back in the interview room a child reporter called Clare was deputed by BBC to ask Venus Williams a soppy question about playing the two British girls Cavaday and Keothavong to which the champion duly replied how challenging they had been and how “it will be great for Wimbledon and great for British Tennis.” Venus is a rare and wondrous talent but there was something about her little girl voice that made the answer wholly unconvincing. It will take much more of yesterday’s anger for Anne and the others to make the Williams words ring true.

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