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Daily Mirror Article

When she steps onto the grass of Wimbledon tomorrow, Mirrorgirl Barbara Schett will do so with the roar of her legion of male fans ringing in her ears.  Back home in Austria, Babsi's bank manager might well be giving her a little cheer too.


She has already won more than $1 million in prize money and the 25 year-old player could become of the richest women in sport, thanks to a string of lucrative sponsorship deals and an ever increasing army of followers.  But what those fans who cheer her on tomorrow may not realise that success has come at a terrible price.


Nine months ago, the unassuming young woman watched her world collapse around her as the game she loved tore her personal life apart.  Her voice drops to almost a whisker as she talks about becoming suddenly single when she broke up with her partner of eight years - the man who was also her tennis coach.  Thomas Prerovsky had given up his own promising tennis career to help propel Barbara into the limelight.  But the pressures involved in the cut-throat world of professional tennis eventually destroyed their relationship.


'Telling him I wanted to end it was the worst thing I have ever had to do' she admits 'The following few months were dreadful - the most difficult of my life.  When you have been with someone for eight years, you just cannot imagine living without them.  We started going out when I was 16 - and I was so in love with him.  He was my first serious boyfriend.  Right from the very beginning I wanted to marry him.  Even at 16, I wanted to get married straight away.  I thought it was forever.  In the early days, it was perfect.  He gave up his own hopes of a tennis career to be my coach - and that got him a lot of stick from people who poked fun at the fact he had no proper training.  People used to laugh at us and say he wasn't up to the job.  We were determined to show them.  It was the two of us against the world.  Then I started going up the rankings - and they had to admit her was doing well'.


By this point, however, the pair were spending 24 hours a day together.  They would travel the world  together, slog away on the court for hours on end - then go home together.  Barbara shakes her head, conceding that it was never going to work.  'Looking back, I would never advise anyone to mix work and pleasure like that.  You just cannot have it all.  It just can't work.  By the end we were arguing together on the court - then continuing the row well into the night.  I resented the fact that there 

couldn't be a clear line between when he was my coach and when he was my boyfriend.  When you have a bad game and you are felling awful about yourself you need someone to tell you and tell you everything will be ok when you come off the court.  I didn't have that.  I just had him yelling at me and pointing out what I was doing wrong.  Then I would argue back.  It was making me so unhappy.  Something had to give.


Last autumn, Barbara ended the relationship.  But she can't help but wonder what would have happened had she ended their relationship months before.  'If we had stopped working together earlier, we might have had a chance on a personal level, but I didn't see that.  I thought we could work things out.  By the end, it was too late.  I just couldn't bear being with him 24 hours a day.  I wanted out.  But ending it all broke my heart.  I still love him - but in a different way now, and I'm still coming to terms with the fact that he is out of my life.  It is hard'.


At 5ft 9ins, with striking green eyes and a fresh complexion, Barbara is well aware of her popularity among her male fans - most of whom welcome her new-found single status.  And while she insists she doesn't want to get involved again too quickly, she would be the first to admit that she does want to find love again.  'I read somewhere that I said I didn't want a boyfriend for five years.  That just isn't true.  I don't want to go five years without having someone.  I would like to be settled down and thinking about starting a family by the time I retire at 29 or 30.  I come from a very close family and I'd like to have maybe 3 children of my own.  But first I have to meet the right man.  I don't know how easy that is going to be - and I certainly don't want to rush things this time'.


Life on the world tennis circuit doesn't really lend itself to comfortable relationships.  I'm not sure I'd want to be involved with anyone from the tennis world again - but those are the only people I seem to meet these days.  It is very difficult.  Tennis is my whole life, always has been.  Even at school, I could never really go to parties like the other kids because I was always aware of the need to be up and training the next morning.  The game always has to come first'. 


In the flesh, Barbara is naturally pretty rather than pin-up stunning.  She is also amazingly unassuming, given that she seems to have the tennis world at her feet.  She throws her head back and laughs when talking about Ace magazine, which voted her the sexiest woman in tennis.  'I thought that was the funniest thing that I have ever seen.  My parents were very chuffed.  They thought it was nice for me.  I was a bit shocked, but, yes, flattered.  I don't know if I am sexy, though.  I can't see it myself.  The truth is that Babsi still regards herself as something of a tomboy.  She rarely wears make-up and squirms when asked about fashion preferences.  'When I did my first set of pictures I looked at them and couldn't believe it.  I said to the photographer, 'You have done a brilliant job there.  But then I was wearing a kilo of make-up on my face'.


Yet she has already done a spot of modelling, and is only too aware that her potential earnings now rely as much on her face and figure as they do on her sporting skills.  'It is weird, of course I look in the mirror before I go on court.  We all  like to make sure we look our best.  But once I am out there I certainly don't worry about it - and I'm quite taken aback that other people do.  No one looks their best in the middle of a game.  Not with sweat running down your face.  And you can't worry too much about how you look.  Sure I'd like better teeth and I know I would look better if I lost 4 kilos.  I'd like my legs to be less muscly. I am a tennis player, I need these muscles.  I'm not prepared to look pretty at the expense of my game'.


Barbara's highest world ranking was seventh in 1999, and she hopes to back in the top 10 now that her personal troubles are over.  Beating Venus Williams last month has given her more self-confidence, and she insists that she is mentally strong.  I'm enjoying tennis much more now.  Last year there were so many changes in my life, but I'm back on form now'.


At this year's Wimbledon Babsi will be accompanied by her new coach, former Austrian Davis Cup player Harald Meir, who has known her since a child.  This time around, however, the player/coach relationship is a strictly professional one.  And she seems thrilled by this.  'He is getting married later this year, which makes me really happy.  He will only ever be my coach.  I will never mix business with pleasure.'  Then the beautiful face breaks into a frown 'I have learned the hard way that it doesn't work'.