Tennis: Pierce ends Martinez reign

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The Independent Online
John McEnroe, paying a brief visit to the Italian Open yesterday to conduct a coaching clinic with Richard Krajicek, gave a crooked little smile and asked, "Who's in the women's final, Raffaella Reggi?''

He could not be serious. With an Italian presence, the stadium would have been heaving, the noise deafening. But the New Yorker has a good memory. Reggi was the last home player to win the championship, in Taranto in 1985, two years before the women's event returned to Rome's Foro Italico.

Since then the title has been taken overseas by Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Monica Seles and Conchita Martinez, whose four-year reign for Spain was brought to a close yesterday by Mary Pierce.

Pierce joins Martina Navratilova and Sabatini as the only players to have defeated Martinez in the singles tournament. However, the Canadian- born Frenchwoman no doubt would have experienced a more difficult afternoon in the sun than a 6-4, 6-0 victory in 81 minutes had not Martinez's ability to trade shots diminished when she began to suffer the effects of a neck injury in the fourth game.

"I was feeling very well when I started," the 1994 Wimbledon champion said, "but after my neck started aching I could not play the forehand.''

In the third round, Pierce had capitalised on Monica Seles's lack of match practice, defeating the top seed, 7-6, 7-6.

Martinez appeared ill at ease even before requesting treatment for the neck ailment. Before attempting to save the first of three break points at 1-2 in the opening set, she paused and told the umpire that she was distracted by sun glinting on metal on a spectator's hat.

Play was delayed while stewards identified the offending hat and asked the wearer to remove it. Martinez subsequently saved the break points, and threatened to turn the set her way by breaking for 3-2 in the next game.

It was then that the Spaniard's physical discomfort became clear. She took an injury time-out before the sixth game, in which Pierce broke back, and had further massage before Pierce took a 5-3 lead.

Surprisingly, Pierce won only one point when serving for the set in the next game, after which her opponent began to capitulate. Although Martinez lost the concluding seven games, she decided to go ahead with the doubles final in partnership with Patricia Tarabini. They were defeated by Nicole Arendt and Manon Bollegraf 6-2, 6-4.

While acknowledging that Martinez was hardly a force on the day, Pierce emphasised how important it had been to concentrate on her own shots and not be distracted into making errors. "I had to play pretty solid, stay calm and try to keep my head together," Pierce said. The combination brought her the winner's cheque for $150,000 and helped her confidence before the French Open in a fortnight's time.

Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski will return to action in the men's tournament, which starts today. Henman, the No 14 seed, chances his arm - or certainly his right elbow - against the Spaniard Roberto Carretero. Rusedski plays Albert Portas, a Spanish qualifier, for the opportunity of meeting either Pete Sampras or Jim Courier in the second round.

This time last year, Carretero was the toast of his country, having made ATP Tour history in Hamburg by becoming the lowest ranked player (No 143) and the first qualifier to win a "Super 9" tournament. Since then, he has won only two matches.

Apart from being the more comfortable on clay courts, Carretero has a slight edge on Henman in terms of match practice. His latest win came last week in Hamburg, a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 success against Jens Knippschild, of Germany. Carretero then lost in the second round against a compatriot, Felix Mantilla.

Henman has not played since undergoing surgery to his elbow in March. Rusedski, who has recovered from a wrist injury and last played in St Petersburg in March, will also have to be on his guard against Portas, a 23-year-old clay-courter ranked No 72 in the world.