Tennis: Wood cut down with rest of the British: Grim situation to be underlined with a complete absence of home women among top 100

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NINE British players timidly knocked on the door, hoping for a place in the women's international tournament here. Eight were eliminated in the first round of qualifying. Clare Wood, the nation's No 1 from down the road, was handed a wild card for the 32-strong main draw and lost in the opening round yesterday.

The sorry scenario gets worse. Wood's defeat means that, come December, Britain will be without a female player in the top 100 for the first time in the 20 years of official world rankings. Long gone are the days when Ann Jones, Virginia Wade or Sue Barker could be relied upon to fly the flag at home and abroad.

Wood's loss was predictable. Her opponent, the seventh-seeded Julie Halard, of France, was ranked 84 places above her, at No 23, and had the range of strokes to capitalise on the laboured movement which has handicapped Wood's play since she pulled a hamstring while competing in a charity event the week after Wimbledon.

At times, Wood's competitive instincts compensated for her lack of mobility.

She saved three break points in the opening game, took a 2-0 lead and then lost the advantage, missing a couple of shots to give her opponent the confidence to place a volley in the corner of the court for 0-40 in the third game. A double fault, an old failing, completed the damage.

Halard moved ahead 4-3 after Wood netted a couple of forehands and broke again to take the set in 39 minutes with a backhand service return and a forehand volley.

After recovering from 0-2 in the second set, helped by a double fault by Halard in the third game, Wood's serve let her down again. She saved two break points from 0-40 in the sixth game, only to double-fault when attempting to salvage the third. The Briton won only one more point, Halard serving out for 5-2 with an ace and then breaking to love in the concluding game.

It was so different a year ago. Wood, facing the seventh-seeded Leila Meskhi in the second round at the Brighton Centre, defeated the Georgian 6-3, 7-6 to become only the fifth Briton to advance to the quarter-finals in the 15 years of the tournament. Her ranking rose from 104 to 84, an improvement which continued to a career-high 77 in May this year.

Those gains having been lost, Wood's ranking will drop to around No 132 next week. Yesterday, she found herself in a situation familiar to Jo Durie, her predecessor as Britain's leading player, responding to questions about the nation's dearth of talent.

'I don't get politically involved in what the LTA is doing to produce players,' she said. 'That's up to them. I can only try to make the most of the time I have got left as a player.'

Expressing the hope that the lost generation would soon be found, Wood wondered if the current crop of aspirants understood how difficult it is to make the grade. 'The rest of the game has overtaken what's taking place in Britain,' she said. 'We've got to become more professional all round.'

The Lawn Tennis Association's latest step to achieve that goal, a squad system of coaching designed to add a competitive element, has resulted in a minor rebellion. Six players have expressed a desire to remain with their current coaches, even if it means being excluded from the squad. In most cases, a compromise is likely to be reached, with the players being allowed to divide their training programme between the squad system and their individual coach.

Wood was in distinguished company as a first-round loser. Mary Joe Fernandez, the third seed, was defeated by Patty Fendick, an American compatriot, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Fendick, it may be remembered, was Martina Hingis's first victim on the WTA Tour a fortnight ago, losing to the 14-year- old Swiss in straight sets in Zurich. Yesterday, Fendick capitalised on the torpor which frequently has marred Fernandez's play since she underwent abdominal surgery last year.

Conchita Martinez, the Wimbledon champion, seemed likely to follow Fernandez out of the tournament. Struggling to find her timing, the top seed found herself 1-5 down and facing a set point against Wiltrud Probst, of Germany, ranked No 67.

Probst then netted a backhand, and Martinez was able to work her way back into the match. After forcing a tie-break, the Spaniard had to save a second set point, Probst hitting a forehand long in this instance. Once Martinez secured the shoot-out, 8-6, Probst's resistence broke. The score: 7-6, 6-0.

'I had to play aggressively, but I made a lot of mistakes on my forehand,' the Spaniard said. 'I was rushing a lot of my play. Then I started to play a bit more calmly and got better and better as the match went on.'

The private jet which has been chartered to take Martinez to the wedding of her coach, Eric van Harpen, in Switzerland on Friday remains on stand by.

The Spaniard plays Petra Ritter, of Austria, today for a place in the quarter-finals.

Britain's contribution to the proceedings will be in the doubles, Wood partnering Valda Lake against Linda Harvey-Wild, of the United States, and Patricia Hy, of Canada.

(Photograph omitted)

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