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Tennis: Kournikova's collapse hands Pierce victory

MARY PIERCE, the fifth seed, held off Anna Kournikova on the opening night of the season-ending Chase Championships here on Monday night.

Pierce was on her way to becoming the tournament's first victim of an upset before she engineered a remarkable comeback, helped by a near total collapse by the Russian teenager, to produce a 6-7, 7-6, 6-0, victory in just over two hours on the blue carpet at Madison Square Garden. "I haven't come from behind in a while, that's a good feeling," said Pierce, the 1997 runner-up here.

At the site of many great title fights of the past, Kournikova had Pierce on the ropes in the second set but could not deliver a knockout blow. The 18-year-old Kournikova appeared to be in complete control in the second set with Pierce barely hanging on.

Twice in the sixth game Kournikova was a point away from seizing a 5- 1 lead that would have left her serving for the match, but Pierce saved both break points to progress to 4-2.

"I just said to myself, `anything can happen. Just play every point the best you can'," Pierce said.

At 5-2, Kournikova was two points away from taking the match, but Pierce produced a big serve to hold for 5-3. That still gave the Russian a chance to serve for the match but she lost her serve to love.

"She returned well that game and I was too defensive," admitted Kournikova, who held her next service game for a 6-5 lead that forced Pierce to serve for survival for a third consecutive time. Again Pierce rose to the challenge, serving a love game to force a second tie-break, which she claimed when Kournikova was unable to return a blazing backhand by the Frenchwoman.

The match was then even but the momentum swing was nearly complete. After two sets in which the Russian had put 70 per cent of her first serves in play - a far cry from her debut here last year when she double-faulted her way out of the first round - it all fell apart for Kournikova.

Pierce stormed through the final set, dropping a total of just five points. "It was completely mental," said Kournikova, who insisted a lack of recent match play due to injury had hurt her confidence. "Everything was good. I was feeling the ball. Mentally I just couldn't get over that. I just need some more matches."

The seventh-seeded Barbara Schett made the most of her Chase Championships debut by beating the Spain's Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 6-1, 6-4. It was the Austrian's third win over the declining Sanchez-Vicario in as many meetings this year.

"It's just great to be here, great to play here in Madison Square Garden," enthused Schett, one of four newcomers to the prestigious 16-player season finale and a newcomer to the world's top 10.

"It went too fast," Sanchez-Vicario said. "All the games, you know, went on her side really fast."

Results, Digest, page 31