PLAYERS from the south of England have long maintained a stranglehold on the national tennis title but Lancashire's Jane O'Donoghue may change the form book when the Hastings Direct National Tennis Championships returns to Bolton Arena next week.

The 19-year-old from Ashton-in-Makefleld endured a mentally agonising week on the sidelines at Bolton last year, having recently recovered from knee surgery.

Almost her entire 2001 season was wiped out and many predicted she would never return to the sport. But she has more than made up for the lost time having transformed her game in 2002.

Her spectacular return this spring netted successive clay court $10,000 events in Bournemouth and Hatfield. In the summer she displayed the now trademark qualities of courage and tenacity against Venus Williams in the first round of the Wimbledon Championships.

And earlier this month at she beat both her singles opponents in the Maureen Connolly Trophy, GB v US under 19s event in Bournemouth.

Now, just days away from the start of the championships, she believes that she could be the first player from the north of England since Durham and Cleveland's Jo Ward, in 1994, to lift the coveted title, which is currently held by Surrey's Hannah Collin.

"We always see a lot of good players come from the south, it would be good for tennis in the north if I could do well at Bolton," she said.

"I'm coming into the tournament with good form and anything could happen and, as we saw last year, there were a couple of big upsets which no one expected."

O'Donoghue, who is competing at the LTA's $25,000 event in Southampton this week, is likely to be seeded fifth at Bolton behind the country's top four players, Elena Baltacha (Scotland), Julie Pullin (Sussex), Lucie Ahl (Devon) and Anne Keothavong (Middlesex).

"Anne Keothavong is going in with good form and I've never played Julie Pullin but I know she's tricky to play," added O'Donoghue.

"Elena Baltacha and Lucie Ahl are the ones to look out for but we've all beaten each other and it's whoever plays well on the day who will win. But I'm feeling confident and I'm not afraid to play anyone,"

Like the other British players in action next week, O'Donoghue spends the bulk of the year travelling to the far corners of the globe accruing world ranking points.

But she admits it is every player's dream to win the national title and the £5,000 first prize.

"I'm not thinking about the money, just the prestige of the national title and the pride. It's a great achievement to be able to say that you've won the national title," continued O'Donoghue.

"Because of my injury, I was a spectator last year and, not being a great watcher of tennis, it was very frustrating. Hopefully I can make up for that this time."

The championships will be heldat the Bolton Arena from Monday to Saturday next week.