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GB women show signs of revival
By Piers Newbery
GB women eye World Group
It may be one of the best kept secrets in British sport but there are signs that women's tennis may just have turned the corner.
Victory in a nine-team qualifying tournament in Malta last week saw the Marsh GB Fed Cup team return to the Europe/Africa Zone Group I - level two of women's team tennis.
The team is based around a core of players just into their twenties in Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong and Jane O'Donoghue.
And with Baltacha and, to a lesser extent, Keothavong having finally overcome injury problems all three have reason to be optimistic about making real progress in the rest of the year.
That is in marked contrast to the far higher profile men's game, where there is a worrying gap between Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski and the next hopeful, 16-year-old Andrew Murray.
"The three of us are 20 or 21 and I think we're in a good situation," O' Donoghue told BBC Sport.
"There's no comparison in the men's game with players of our age.
"With us three we've got a really good chance to push into the top 100 which would put women's tennis on the map, because at the moment if you asked most people who the British number one is - no disrespect to Anne - they wouldn't know."
Fed Cup captain Nick Brown, who is also O'Donoghue's coach, believes the 21-year-old from Wigan should be aiming to match British number one Keothavong's ranking by the end of the year.
"I've got to be looking to be around 170 the way I'm playing," she agreed. "I've had a solid year."
And despite the relatively low-key surroundings of challenger events and the constant financial struggle, she insists motivation is not a problem.
"The LTA have helped me but without that help I wouldn't be able to play. I'm just about breaking even; I think most of us are.
"But it's not difficult to be motivated because you want to move up the rankings.
171. A Keothavong
222. J O'Donoghue
229. A Janes
322. E Baltacha
"Even when you're playing at a little club in Italy it gives you the chance to play big tournaments like Eastbourne and Wimbledon, so that's the motivation."
O'Donoghue's life is a cycle of three weeks on the road followed by a week at her base in Cambridge, with trips to Sweden and Italy next in her schedule.
But the British number three had a taste of the glamorous end of the game when she faced Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon 2002, putting up a better fight than the 6-1 6-1 scoreline indicated.
"Maybe she's never played a server like me before,'' was Williams' reaction after the match, before adding: "Actually, to be honest, she played very well. I just have a lot more experience.'' 1
O'Donoghue tasted the top level against Venus Williams in 2002
And the match still provides inspiration to O'Donoghue as she aims to get a regular place on the main tour.
"It was a great experience and showed me where I had to be," said O'Donoghue.
"I was a bit out of my depth but that's how your game improves, and it was two years ago. In the rallies I felt comfortable, but the serve was just huge.
"But there's no one else in the game, apart from her sister, who serves like that. It made me realise I had to up my serve and I've done that."
O'Donoghue, Keothavong and Baltacha will need to improve further if they are to build on last week's Fed Cup success.
However, the fact that Great Britain are in a position to even challenge for the heady heights of the World Group is a long overdue good news story for women's tennis in Britain.
"Next year is going to be difficult, a much tougher task," admitted O'Donoghue, "but we'll try and aim as high as possible.
"We're a young team and we've definitely got the quality."