© Ella Ling

Anne Keothavong

"The night I checked into a Mexican brothel"


Five of Anne Keothavong’s travel disasters:   

The night I checked into a Mexican brothel.
“I was on this trip in Mexico, checked into this hotel, and I didn’t realise that it was a whorehouse. I was there with another girl, and we checked in, and there were no keys and you couldn’t lock the door. It was a random place. It was almost like a service-station-type place. Drivers could park their car, and then walk up into the rooms which were up above the garages. We walked up into the room we had been given, and it was full of sex toys, condoms, it was pure porn on the TV. We thought, ‘Oh my God’, and then we found that we couldn’t lock the door, and we realised what sort of place it was. We didn’t stay there. We checked in and then checked out pretty much straightaway.

“I think the tournament had recommended the hotel. It wasn’t exactly safe for young girls – a place in the middle of nowhere in Mexico where you couldn’t lock the door. I know some female players have stayed in whorehouses and known that it was that kind of place, because they’ve been on a budget.” 
Escaping from Lebanon, and over the Syrian border, with an armed escort.
“In 2008, I was playing in the Lebanese resort of Jounieh, when fighting broke out in Beirut [sectarian violence raged between Hezbollah, a Shiite militia, and the Sunni fighters loyal to the government]. It all kicked off just before my quarter-final match, and I was on the phone to my parents, and they were telling me to get home and not to bother with the tournament. I fancied my chances, though. I thought to myself, ‘If they’re going to carry on with the tournament, it can’t be that bad’. I think I was a bit naive.

“I didn’t warm up that morning as I was on the phone. In some ways it was easier to play. I was into the match, but at the back of my mind, I was thinking that if I lost the match, I could get out of the country. I didn’t want to be stuck. They closed the airport so there was no way of getting home. A group of girls took a boat to Cyprus. I was still in the tournament, and we were okay then, but obviously never sure about whether the fighting is going to spread or not. We played semi-finals and the final on the same day so that everybody could leave. I was scared because I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. 

“I chose to continue, and it paid off. Winning that tournament meant that I played Wimbledon that year for the first time without a wild card. It was an interesting way to do it. The British embassy weren’t that helpful, I was there on my own without a coach, and there weren’t any other British players there. The Spanish players were provided with transport and armed security, and I tagged along with them to get out of the country over the Syrian border. I think the security were the Spanish secret service. They had tried to leave the country the day before, and a car was shot at, so they had to turn back. There was a car in front and a car behind. I don’t think I fully understood what was going on, but it was okay once I got into Syria.” 
Wrecking my back on a bench in Calcutta.
“I had just reached the semi-finals of a WTA tournament for the first time, and I was supposed to be travelling on to Seoul. My flight was delayed, and I ended up spending eight hours on a bench in Calcutta airport. That was a nightmare. The boredom gets to you, and it wasn’t great for my back. When I got to Seoul, my back was wrecked and I had to retire from my first-round match.” 
Sleeping with the cockroaches.
“On the same trip to Mexico when I checked into a brothel, I stayed in someone’s attic in a room which was full of cockroaches. At some tournaments, you end up staying with families. They were a perfectly nice family, except I was up in the attic, sleeping on the mattress, where all the cockroaches were. That was the worst night’s sleep of my life. I slept with my tennis racket by my side. The whole night, I felt so tense, and I don’t think I got much rest.”
Problems in Britain.
“I’ve never been robbed when travelling outside the UK. The only time I’ve had anything stolen was when someone took my iPod from the gym at the National Tennis Centre in London. The only place in the world where I’ve ever felt threatened was in Barnstaple in 2010 when I had an incident there [three men were arrested in connection with ‘a racially aggravated incident’ after Keothavong told Devon police she had received “a barrage of abuse” as she walked alone from the car park to her hotel].”