THE BRITISH TENNIS INTERVIEW
British No.11 Melanie South likes to mix up her tennis game - although during an enforced lay-off lsts year she was mixing cocktails like Sea Breeze and Blue Lagoon. Reginald Brace meets a player who has her compass firmly set on Wimbledon.
Victory over Anne Keothavong in the final of the second $10,000 event at Bath in April offered encouraging evidence that Melanie South was emerging from the shadow of a knee injury which put her out of action for five months last year.
It was a worrying time as advisers - notably Nick Pierce at Loughborough University - tried to solve the tendon problems which struck during a quarter final at a tournament at St Joseph, Montana. Not the least of her worries was how to fill the hours of enforced inactivity - "I don't like sitting around dong nothing at home." she says.
There were days of diligent exercise in the gym, of course. Then Melanie came up with an unusual way of spending her evenings: working as a bar girl at Wetherspoon's, a well know public house in Wimbledon. "I'm not really into drinking but I enjoyed working there six until midnight, five nights a week. Most of the customers were young and I made some new friends outside tennis. I also had to learn to mix drinks I had never heard of - cocktails with names like Long Island, Sea Breeze and Blue Lagoon. I worked there six or seven weeks up to the end of last year. Arvind Parmar, Martin Lee and James Trotman came in to see if I was getting on all right. I still go back there to see everyone now and then."
Her knee troubles resolved - by injections, not an operation - the 19 year old Surrey girl returned to the tennis court at the LTA winter training camp in La Manga last December and is now back on the tournament circuit under the discerning eye of Lucie Ahl, wo coaches Melanie along with Katie O'Brien at Queen's Club.
"Right at the outset the biggest thing was teaching her how to be a professional," says Ahl. "It's not a massive secret - young players can be a bit naive when they come out of the juniors into senior competition and find it's 24/7 in terms of preparation and commitment. It was a struggle at the start and I think she hated me and it. Then she realised what it was all about and it was unfortuante the injury happened when it did. Now we've got that out of the way she is young enough to get over it and come back all the stronger. Bath was amassive steppoing stone because she played very well. She has a naturally heavy strike on both sides and her mental discipline ahs come on a lot. The biggest thing we are working on is her movement and she is working hard on that. Also, her mental discipline has come on a lot. Belief comes into it and if Mel can belive in herself, who knows what might happen. I can't wave a magic wand but when she gets it right her game's very good."
Melanie lives at home with her parents John, a tennis coach at New Malden tennis club who once played professional football with Fulham and Brentford, and Sheila. She was into swimming, gymnastics, table tennis and badminto when she was younger - not to mention tap and ballet - but tennis soon became her priority and she has played full time for two years.
The targets are obvious - top 100, Wimbledon: "I'm an attacking player, I try to dominate." And the discipline is there. After losing to the Russian Katia Kozhokhina in the semi finals of the British Tour event at Bournemouth she disappeared into the gym and the steam room for 90 minutes.
Wetherspoon's is already becoming a distant episode in a developing career. www.melaniesouth.net
Born: Kingston, Surrey 3 May 1986
Lives: New Malden, Surrey
Highest WTA raning: 416 (August 2004)
2001 RU National 15 and under singles
2002 Won LTA Winter Grand Prix 16 singles title
RU National 18 singles
2003 QF National 18 singles
Winner National 18 doubles with K O'Brien
2004 Winner $10,000 Mumbai
RU $10,000 Bournemouth
2005 Winner $10,000 Bath
RU $10,000 Edinburgh