Tennis: Artist Felix pots prize

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EAGER TO address his hosts in English, Felix Mantilla took the microphone and thanked everybody, including the "ball-boys", who happened to be girls. It was one of the Spaniard's few unforced errors on the day he successfully defended the Samsung Open singles title, defeating Albert Costa, the 1996 champion and a fellow citizen of Barcelona, 6-3, 7-5.

Mantilla's excitement was understandable. It was his first victory against Costa on the ATP Tour in five attempts, and his first tournament success since leaving the West Hampshire Club with the trophy 12 months ago. Sun, sea, and a cheque for $54,000 (pounds 32,000) made him a happy tourist.

Spectators were treated to an artistic style of tennis rarely seen on Wimbledon's lawns as the Spaniards crafted their points on the slow green clay court. Rallies of between 20 and 25 shots were liberally sprinkled with lobs and drop shots, and the movement on both sides of the net was fast and intelligent. Moreover, volleying was not neglected when the opportunity arose.

Patience is a key to success on clay, and Costa's was almost exhausted by the time he lost his serve to love for 1-3 in the second set. A howl of frustration was followed by a cry of "aaaargh!" in the next game as the No 2 seed missed with a forehand on his first break point of the match. He netted a forehand on a second opportunity, but on a third lured Mantilla into hitting a backhand long.

Costa, whose efforts had seen little reward until that point, was back in the game, and Mantilla began to worry that yet another contest with his compatriot was about to run away from him. "Albert has very good physique, and I don't know what would have happened if he had won the second set," the No 3 seed said.

Mantilla made sure the question remained unanswered. Costa, after serving to stay in the match at 4-5, won only one more point - the first match point - before netting a forehand to lose after an hour and 28 minutes.

"It wasn't revenge, but it was a challenge for me to win today," Mantilla said. "I have only ever beaten Albert before at the national championships in Spain."

Evidently comfortable on the Bournemouth clay, Mantilla noted that it differed from European red clay. "It doesn't take top-spin so well, and the clay seems heavy and the ball slow," he said. "But you still have a good chance to win if you have good mentality and a strong physique."

Fit as he is, Mantilla, who is 24 on Wednesday, resembles one of Bournemouth's senior citizen's with his bleached hair. He dyed it after a bet with fellow player, Luis Lobo. "I'm letting it grow out now," he said.