Tennis: Maleevas march on to make history

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The Independent Online
ON ANOTHER blisteringly hot day at Flinders Park, Julia Maleeva was barely perspiring as she marched purposefully around the outside courts, just like any mother checking on her children at play.

Except that Mrs Maleeva is not a normal mother, because her three daughters did something very abnormal at the Australian Open yesterday, something that had never been done in the entire history of Grand Slam tennis. All three reached the fourth round.

On Court Two, Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere was the only sister to drop a set, before beating the American Ginger Helgeson 6-4 in the third, while on Court Six Katerina brushed aside Barbara Rittner, of Germany. That left the youngest, Magdalena, to mop up another German, Meike Babel, out on Court 11.

'We didn't really talk about it before we played,' Magdalena said. 'But now we're starting to realise what we have achieved. It's nice.'

All sort of routine, really, this business of one Bulgarian family breezing through to the second week of a Grand Slam event when Britain, along with many other nations, cannot produce one brother or sister, girl or boy, capable of reaching the third round.

Given the conditions that existed in Bulgaria while her daughters were growing up, Mrs Maleeva's achievement is quite extraordinary. Marisa Sanchez Vicario can be equally proud, but neither of her boys, Emilio and Javier, have managed to back up their sister, Arantxa, who won yesterday, by staying in the tournament.

The only sour note of the day for the Maleevas was Manuela's thigh injury which, she insisted, had nothing to do with the fact that Court Two, which had been out of action all week, was still sprouting leaks as a result of problems created by trying to lay down the automatic line-calling system. So much for high tech.

The withdrawal of Andre Agassi and Goran Ivanisevic and the early-round defeats of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl and Richard Krajicek opened up some very inviting holes in the draw which have been filled by some unlikely customers, including two American qualifiers, Chris Garner and Kelly Jones. He may be the sixth- ranked doubles player in the world, but Jones' singles ranking going into this event was 447.

Yesterday, two men's seeds fell - Carlos Costa (12), who ran into a rejuvenated Australian, Richard Fromberg, and Alexander Volkov (16), who was defeated in straight sets by Arnaud Boetsch, a Frenchman who might finally do justice to his talent this year.

Stefan Edberg was relieved of the third set 6-1 by Amos Mansdorf, the tenacious Israeli, but won in four and, under the lights, Pete Sampras did nothing to dispel the notion that he is the form horse by recovering from 1-5 in the first-set tie-break to beat the pugnacious, lantern-jawed Austrian Alex Antonitsch, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2.

The seldom-seen intensity that lurks beneath the Californian's casual demeanour surfaced in unusual fashion in that tie-break when Antonitsch, who has a specialised sense of humour, apologised for hitting a lucky shot. 'That made it 5-1 to him in the tie- breaker and the last thing I wanted to hear was that he had hit a lucky shot,' said Sampras, who advanced to the net so that he could share these thoughts with his opponent. 'Yeah, I was frustrated because he was coming in on me and playing so well so I just said, 'Let's get on with it and play the next point.' '

A little release of tension did Sampras no harm at all and after a week in which he has played some spellbinding tennis, he should be set fair for a semi-final clash with Edberg who, however, should not take Boetsch and his multi-faceted backhand lightly. In the fourth round, Sampras is due to meet MaliVai Washington, a finalist at last summer's Manchester Open.

There is one other name that might be worth watching. Today Kenneth Carlsen will be in action against Michael Stich and he is not a Swede but a Dane. It is many years since the jazz-playing Torben Ulrich lent a touch of eccentricity to the men's tour, and even longer since Kurt Nielsen reached the Wimbledon final. A year ago Carlsen, a tall left-hander, was ranked 1,036. He is now moving toward the Top 50 and Stich will have his work cut out.