Tennis: Sanchez relishes the battle

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WHEN ANNA Kournikova walked into the interview room, her right hand wrapped in a jacket, the suspicion was that she was either smuggling a trophy or concealing a weapon that would blow her Wimbledon rivals away faster than a Yonex racket. It transpired that she was hiding an injured thumb, the latest pre-tournament worry to set alongside Greg's ankle and Steffi's leg.

The 17-year-old Russian had returned to Devonshire Park, scene of the the Direct Line Ins-urance Championships, following a second visit to a doctor since Thursday's impressive win against Steffi Graf. "The whole thumb is swollen and has a bruise on it like when you have a punch in the eye," Kournikova said, declining to display the damaged digit for photographers who had been snapping her all week.

Kournikova's face did not betray any great concern, and she emphasised that she expected to be fit to play her opening match against the American Kimberley Po at the All England Club next week. "The doctor said it was just a minor sprain in the ligament and that it would be better if I didn't put any pressure on my hand today," she said.

That gave Arantxa Sanchez Vicario a walk-over into today's final here, where she will play Jana Novotna for the 20th time in her career (Novotna leads the head-to-head, 10-9).

The outlook is brighter than a year ago, when their final was abandoned because of rain with Novotna leading 6-5, on serve, in the opening set. The Czech won their only previous match on grass, in straight sets in last year's Wimbledon semi-finals.

Sanchez Vicario played one set yesterday, completing her third round match against the 16-year-old American Serena Williams, which had been delayed overnight. The Spaniard won, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Williams finishing the contest with her right thigh bandaged and experiencing pain in the right knee and ankle. "I hurt because I'm not used to the grass," she said, adding, "I like the grass a lot. I think grass more or less forces you to attack, which is great for my game. I feel very confident on it, and I'm looking forward to playing at Wimbledon."

In contrast to their ill-tempered quarter-final at the French Open two weeks ear-lier, when Sanchez Vicario ac-cused Williams of failing to treat her with respect, the match here was in keeping with the sedate surroundings. "Serena played very well," Sanchez Vicario said.

While scurrying with her customary verve, the Spaniard is playing with impressive conviction. "I feel confident after winning the French Open," she said. "I would prefer to play the semi-finals to go to the final, but I am feeling very good about my game."

She is also happy to find herself in the same half of the Wimbledon draw as Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Kournikova. "I think it's very exciting," Sanchez Vicario said. "Everybody is playing well. The more competition the better."

Novotna played twice yesterday, defeating the Romanian Irina Spirlea in the quarter-finals, 6-4, 7-5, having recovered from 2-5 in the second set, and proving too sharp for Natasha Zvereva in winning their semi-final, 6-2, 6-1.

l Richard Krajicek's Wimbledon preparations are in doubt after he pulled out of an event in the Netherlands. The 1996 champion was forced to withdraw from the tournament in Rosmalen because of an injury to his left knee. He will visit a physio in Rotterdam today before assessing his chances.

l Britain's Miles Maclagan beat Gerald Mandl, of Australia, as the Wimbledon qualifiers finally completed the first round at Roehampton yesterday. Maclagan was joined in the second round by Nick Weal.