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Why being British number one matters

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Jonathan Overend | 21:13 UK time, Wednesday, 2 November 2011

In tennis we often talk about "British number one" when domestic rankings don't technically exist. What we're dealing with, of course, are world rankings and some players are keener than others to sort them by nation.

Greg Rusedski appeared so keen to finish the 2005 season ahead of Tim Henman and Andy Murray he flew to Ukraine to play a bonus challenger tournament.
That was the autumn of metaphorical batons, or torches, or whatever cylindrical objects one is supposed to pass at moments of sporting abdication.

Henman didn't really care. He knew his time was up.

Murray couldn't understand the fuss. For him, the status of British number one meant next to nothing. Even less now, with nobody else within 151 ranking places.

Elena Baltacha in action at the US Open.

It has been a relatively successful year for British number one Baltacha. Photo: Getty images

But for the other British number one, Elena Baltacha, staying on top of the domestic pile is a massive incentive. Likewise, the challenge of overtaking her that currently faces Anne Keothavong, Heather Watson and Laura Robson.

As Baltacha prepares to finish a second successive season inside the world's top 50, she knows finishing as British number one will mean a very respectable international ranking because her compatriots are biting at her heels.

She considers 2011 to be her most rewarding year, with a career-best clay season and a landmark victory only last week in Poitiers, France in her last-16 tie in a tournament where she went on to reach the final.

She took on Virginie Razzano, a tough opponent to work out and break down, who had won their last three meetings. But with perfect preparation and game execution, Baltacha found a way to reach the quarter-finals. It's the scalp she prizes most from the year.

It has to be said that bottom-line success for the Ipswich resident is to get through a season without serious injury.

Many matchday mornings, at various tournament hotels, Baltacha has woken with severe back pain. It is most acute first thing and the pain gradually eases throughout the day. The 28-year-old has learned to deal with it and play through it.

Keothavong is finishing the season strongly with four wins in Linz, Austria, before reaching the last four at the WTA event in Luxembourg, which she competed in as a qualifier, and then victory at a third-tier ITF event in Barnstaple. This week she rounds off her year in Munich with her ranking back around the 80 mark.

After some terrible injury trouble in recent years, the Londoner is looking to max-out in her final few seasons. She is working to put some extra bite on her first and second serves and appears to be calmer on court when dealing with adverse situations, which have so often been her undoing.

Her comeback victory in the first round of Luxembourg qualifying was a rarity; the first time she had won a match having dropped the first set since January in Auckland.

After a couple of winks in the direction of retirement in the past 14 months, Keothavong has been banned from such flirtation by coach Jeremy Bates. Her best days could still be ahead of her.

They are not transforming British tennis, but Baltacha and Keothavong are teaching the youngsters important lessons; about perseverance, hard work and sacrifice in the attempt to fulfil potential.

In short, two ladies who were on the scene a decade ago continue to lead the teenage talents of Heather Watson (world ranking 89) and Laura Robson (133).

When you're not a world beater, there are smaller goals to set. Domestic supremacy is one of them and if that provides an extra incentive for Watson and Robson, then all the better.


  • Comment number 1.

    I totally agree with Murray (for once). On a world stage other players whether it's the ATP or WTA couldn't care less who's the country's 1, 2, 3 or so on. The gap in Britain especially between each ranked player (compared to the world ranking is huge). Greg only cared because he knew his time was up and wanted to go out on a 'high' as he hadn't been close to his top 4 peak/US open finalist in years. The only stats that count for significance these days anyway in tennis is top 10/20 in the world and how many grand slams a player has.

  • Comment number 2.

    robson needs to work harder on back hand and fittness, and that second serve...jesus......why is it our juniors dont step it up when they hit the seniors like other countries ???

  • Comment number 3.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 4.

    karlwbrown, perhaps a bit harsh, no? None of the junior girls make an immediate impact in the same way that they used to - presumably because of the limitations on how many WTA tournaments they can play before they are 18. There will be no more 14 year olds playing up a storm, because the rules make it tougher for that to happen. Azarenka has been talked about as the next big thing for years, but she's only now putting it together (or at least the last year-18 months). She's 22. Pavlyuchenkova is the other young thing that's been talked up a lot - she's 19/20. Give Robson a couple of years then see where she's at. She's had a lot of injuries to deal with this year, and has still improved her ranking substantially and has put in some decent performances.

    Very happy to see Keothavong doing well of late. She deserves a clear run, free from injury, to play to her potential.

  • Comment number 5.

    karlwbrown clearly knows very little - Laura Robson is comfortably the highest world ranked girl of her age group so she has managed the junior/senior transition as well as anyone.
    Laura is subject to restrictions on numbers of tournaments she can enter, had she been allowed to enter 25+ her ranking would be comfortably inside the top 100 but she'd be potentially heading for burn-out. Lets give her & Heather Watson all the time they need and wish them both long, injury-free careers - if they dont win grand slams or reach the dizzy heights they're still a damn site more talented than most of us.

    All our girls are being the best they can, only here can being the best in your country mean you're in line for critisism & scrutiny.

  • Comment number 6.

    Well said by NickBr. These are exciting times for women's tennis in Britain. It is ideal that Watson and Robson have 2 more experienced players about, who are also enjoying successful stages in their own careers, to help bring them along.

  • Comment number 7.

    Laura's problem is that she won Junior Wimbledon 2-3 years early (most winners are 16-17, not 14), so everyone is expecting her to do everything else in her career 2-3 years early. She is doing extremely well, and you have to look another 100 places down the rankings to find anyone younger. Heather is also doing well, with only one younger player ahead of her.

    Elena and Anne have both had a good year and done well to stave of the changing of the guard for another 12 months.

  • Comment number 8.

    @ #2... that's very poor knowledge about Laura Robson... She had injuries 1st half of the season. then she reached 2nd round of Wimbledon & USO. One of the youngest in world 150 at the age of 17... I really expecting Laura to push it hard next year when she turn 18, we gonna see her playing senior tour week-in-week-out.

  • Comment number 9.

    NickBr @ 18:51 on 3rd November has it absolutely right. There seemsw to be ab aggressive expectation that our athletes and sports stars in any sport have a right to success and be world beaters and then when they don't people jump on them with excessively harsh criticism. That doesnt seem to happen in any other country (except maybe Australia). We need to be more encouraging and supportive of our athletes. There is a definite change in attitude amongst the younger talents coming through and a far better work ethic. Give them time to develop and don't be so quick to criticise. The negative comment that Andy Murray gets despite being the best male tennis player this country has ever produced in the modern era and being inside the top 4 in the world for the last four years (brief period at number 5 excepted) is extraordinary.


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