Madagascan's progress puts Hingis in shade

TENNIS : A large island not noted for producing tennis talent has enjoyed an encouraging few days at the Australian Open here. No, not Britain - Madagascar.

The 17-year-old Dally Randriantefy, having become the first player from her country ever to qualify for a Grand Slam championship, has developed the habit of winning matches.

Though this is likely to end when she enounters Mary Pierce, the fourth seed, in the third round tomorrow, Melbourne has been delighted to say hello, Dally.

Mocking a ranking of No 243 in the world, she has glided gracefully to straight-set victories against the Argentinians Florencia Labat (No 45) and Patricia Tarabini (No 106).

The last occasion the sports-daft state of Victoria had reason to take notice of an athlete from Madagascar was 20 years ago, when the sprinter Jean Louis Ravelomantsoa won the 120 metres Stawell Gift professional foot race. Ravelomantsoa, it may be recalled, finished eighth behind Jim Hines in the American's world record 100 metres (9.95sec) at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Randriantefy, one of 2,000 registered tennis players from a 6m population (Britain has about 300,000 from 56m), benefited from the International Tennis Association's development programme and also from a Swiss sponsor.

The sponsorship was withdrawn recently - "they were waiting for results, and the results didn't come" - but not before Randriantefy had become acquainted with Martina Hingis, the 14-year-old Czech-born Swiss prodigy. They played each other in junior tournaments and inter-club events, Hingis winning five of their seven matches, and for a time were doubles partners.

Surprisingly, Randriantefy has advanced a round farther than Hingis in their first Grand Slam championship, but, provided the response is sensible, this could prove to be anything but retrograde for the younger player.

Hingis, who won her opening match, 6-0, 7-6, against Jolene Watanabe, a 26-year-old Californian, ranked No 90, lost yesterday to Kyoko Nagatsuka, 6-3, 6-4. The rankings suggested a close contest, the Japanese going into the match one place above Hingis, at No 72. But the Swiss was expected to win.

Though Hingis is gifted, she tends to play a conservative game when possible, opting for comfortable shot-making if an opponent shows signs of being easily dominated. In similar circumstances, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, the last prodigy, would increase the tempo and go for the kill.

It is to be hoped that Hingis's approach will prove to be her salvation in the long term, preventing excessive physical stress while her body grows and delaying the day when a major success increases public expectancy.

Yesterday, she swept into a 3-0 lead in seven minutes, and then eased off sufficiently to allow Nagatsuka to improve her range and timing. The Japanese tailored her shots from the baseline to hit the lines, and Hingis won only nine more points in the set.

It was not until Nagatsuka extended her lead to 2-0, 40-0 in the second set that Hingis came back to life, going for winners and petulantly dropping her racket when upset by her errors, or those she perceived to have been made by the line judges.

Nagatsuka's confidence began to drain. She double-faulted to present Hingis with a 3-2 lead, and was pleasantly surprised when her opponent reciprocated in the next game.

Errors punctuated the remainder of the match, Nagatsuka breaking for 5-3, then twice double-faulting when serving for the match. Hingis was unable to hold serve and sneak through the escape hatch, losing on the second match point.

Patience is recommended to those responsible for Hingis's welfare. Something Hingis said yesterday had an ominous ring: "It has been tennis and tennis. Yesterday I just watched other matches. Perhaps I should have done something else."

Problems are not restricted to teenagers, as Jim Courier and Michael Stich have discovered. Both appear to be starting the year in a more optimstic mood. They are one match away from meeting in the fourth round, with the winner likely to face Pete Sampras, the defending champion, in the quarter-finals.

Stich doubled his number of wins in the first three Grand Slams of last year (a drought relieved by reaching the final of the United States Open) with a second-round victory against the American Alex O'Brien, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4.

Courier, the ninth seed, advanced by defeating Cristiano Caratti, of Italy, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. "I was glad to put last year behind me," the American said. "I had a wonderful holiday of about seven and a half weeks.''

n Naoko Sawamatsu, the leading Japanese player who won her first-round match yesterday, will continue playing at the Australian Open despite learning that her family home was destroyed and her best friend was killed in Tuesday's earthquake.