Richterova's positive role reversal

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THE RETURN of international tennis here after 12 years was marked by a final worthy of the occasion yesterday when Ludmila Richterova, of the Czech Republic, beat the Canadian Patricia Hy-Boulais, 6-7 6-4 6-3 to win the inaugural Rover British clay court championship.

The last time the genteel surrounds of the West Hants Lawn Tennis Club witnessed anything quite this exotic was in 1983 when Jose Higueras beat Tomas Smid to win the old hard-court men's championships, at which point Bournemouth departed the map of world tennis. The last women's event was in 1981, and the 1968 event that saw professionals and amateurs competing together for the first time anywhere in the world feels like ancient history now.

It took the initiative of the LTA and the Women's Tennis Association to bring about this revival, with two aims in mind: to give British players, and others from the middle ranks, the chance to add to their competence on clay; and to take the game to a new audience, or in this case a forgotten one.

What the crowd of around 800 saw on a chilly, breezy, overcast afternoon was a fascinating encounter of sustained quality, as even as you would expect between the player ranked 102nd in the world - the 18-year-old Richterova - and an opponent 11 years her senior but ranked only one place higher. Both of them unseeded, they each took turns to fight back from improbable positions, so that the crowd's expectations were constantly being challenged. It made for some great sport.

Richterova, a lanky 5ft 11in, had a big serve and a sweep to her groundstrokes that was sometimes ungainly. What she lacked in acceleration she made up for in reach, so that Hy had to hit very close to the lines to stand much chance of passing her. At 5ft 4in, Hy was punchier and more compact, and she was also more expressive. But then even Chris Evert might have struggled to match Richterova for equanimity.

Serving at 6-5 and deuce in the first set, Richterova hit a forehand which appeared to clip the line but was called out. The umpire stepped down to examine the mark on the court where the ball was supposed to have landed, but did not appear to find one. When he refused to overrule, Richterova merely smiled a serene smile. Instead of having a set point, she was break point down and lost the game.

The tie-break that followed was remarkable. Richterova glided into a 6-1 lead. But Hy saved the five successive set points she needed to to keep things alive and eventually won it 12-10.

Still Richterova showed no signs of self-recrimination or panic, and her calm was tested further at 2-2 in the second set when the umpire overruled a call of out on a Hy lob, which led to Richterova going 4-2 down. But her poise never left her and she took the second and third sets. Poor Hy then went on to lose the doubles final.

There was an encouraging showing from the four British women who entered here, three of whom, Clare Wood, Megan Miller and Karen Cross, reached the second round by beating more highly ranked opponents. For Wood, the British No 1, the tournament marked another step towards complete rehabilitation after a torn hamstring last summer put her out of serious competition for more than six months. She now heads off to Paris and the qualifying tournament for the French Open which begins a week tomorrow.