Tennis: Maleeva prepares for last hurrah

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

MANUELA Maleeva-Fragniere issued a defiant warning yesterday after earning the dubious privilege of trying to put a dent in Martina Navratilova's final season.

The sixth-seeded Swiss outfought Gabriela Sabatini's conqueror, Marketa Kochta of Germany, 6-4, 6-4, to secure a semi-final place in the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, setting up a meeting with the defending champion and former world No 1, who prevailed against Latvia's Larisa Neiland by the same margin.

Maleeva-Fragniere, the Bulgarian-born player who will herself retire from the game after next week's Asia Open in Osaka, is seeking her third Pan Pacific title and is in no mood to let Navratilova block her path.

'I'm sure she'd like to go out on a winning note, but if she beats me she'll have to earn it,' Navratilova said. 'I'll do everything in my power to make this her last match, period. But at the end of the match, I'll give her a big hug.'

Pursuing the 167th tournament win of her illustrious career, the second-seeded Navratilova is playing her first tournament since losing in the second round of the New York Virginia Slims in mid-November. Neiland put up a spirited struggle only to be outdone by the array of nimble shots Navratilova deployed in tandem with her powerful, topspin-spiced serve.

'I served very well,' the 37-year-old said. 'I lost one point on my serve in the second set and was able to return her serve better than she did mine.'

Maleeva-Fragniere had to overcome a spirited challenge from the tenacious, hard-hitting Kochta in a thrilling, closely contested quarter- final. 'I don't think I can play much better than this,' she claimed.

In the other semi-final, Steffi Graf, who barely broke sweat in her 42-minute dismissal of the Canadian qualifier, Jana Nejedly, 6-1, 6-1, will face the unseeded Kristie Boogert of the Netherlands, a 6-1, 6-4 winner against the American veteran, Pam Shriver.

Another experienced campaigner, Henri Leconte, enchanted his home crowd on Thursday night in creating the upset of the second round of the Marseille Open when he beat Boris Becker, the third seed, 4-6 6-2 6-1.

Leconte tightened his game in the second set and twice broke the German's serve to square the match and then took total command in the third.

'I kept my rhythm and put pressure on Becker when he served,' Leconte said. 'I have worked very hard during the last few months and I am harvesting what I have sown.'

Becker's old rival, Ivan Lendl, was forced to drop out of the Dubai Open yesterday, suffering from a pinched nerve in his back. The Czech-born American retired from his quarter-final match against Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson, with the score 3-1 in the Swede's favour in the third set, after winning the first 6-4 and and losing the second 6-2.