Tennis: Pierce unable to mount a defence

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The Independent Online

Mary Pierce had what she called "one of those days" at the Australian Open yesterday. Perhaps the world No 4 should have included the word "another" in her description as her 6-4, 6-4 defeat by Elena Likhovtseva was not untypical of the year she has had since winning the title here.

Another victim of the underdogs was Kimiko Date. The fifth seed, who was a semi-finalist in this tournament two years ago, was embarrassed in three sets by Mana Endo, a lower-ranked fellow Japanese.

At least the men's world No 4, Boris Becker, struck a blow for the established order by fending off the determined Thomas Johansson. The 20-year-old Swede's heroics in going to the brink of victory in the five-set match split the Melbourne crowd into two raucous groups, who got behind the players like football fans.

Pierce, who won her first Grand Slam title by beating Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in last year's final, was out of sorts in her match against Likhovtseva. The world's 51st-ranked player, who hails from Kazakhstan, simply capitalised on Pierce's string of errors. "I never felt really comfortable on the court," Pierce said. "I felt like I was moving really heavily and just made a lot of mistakes."

Although she lost a marathon game on her service to let Pierce level at 2-2 in the second set, Likhovtseva broke back and held serve to pull 4-2 ahead. She wrapped up the match at 6-4 with an ace after earning three match points with forehand winners.

Pierce was at a loss to explain her poor form, but she has suffered similar lapses over the past 12 months. "It's not so nice but then, in tennis, you never know. It goes with the sport: you have some good days and bad days," the French-Canadian said.

Date, like Pierce, blamed her lacklustre 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 defeat on too many unforced mistakes but also said her familiar rival played consistently well.

While Pierce and Date made early exits, the 10th seed, Lindsay Davenport, and the world No 9, Anke Huber, both had straight sets victories.

Becker, Huber's fellow German, again lived dangerously, sliding to the brink of defeat against Johansson at two sets down before winning a dramatic fifth set.

Johansson, ranked 114th in the world and with nothing to lose, was 2- 2 and 40-0 up on Becker's serve in the third set with the No 4 seed seemingly at his mercy, but Becker, who was taken to five sets by Britain's Greg Rusedski in the first round, clawed his way back for a second time to win 4-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4.

Becker, who thrives on theatre, said his spirits were lifted in the pivotal fifth game of the third set by the almost hysterical support for his opponent from the fanatical, blue-and-yellow face-painted Swedish fans. "They were making me angry ... for me it's always good to be angry because I am really going for my shots and trying to bother the crowd even more," he said.

His revival roused his own fans and the fifth set was played in a rowdy atmosphere with boos and cheers for every point.

Pete Sampras, the top seed, was happy with his form as he booked a fourth- round match against the rising young Australian, Mark Philippoussis, with a four-set defeat of Michael Joyce, a fellow American.

Andre Agassi had a less satisfying day. He was fined pounds 1,000 for swearing during his easy second-round victory over Vince Spadea on Wednesday.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 27