Tennis: Wood knocks out seed and breaks new ground: Briton shows her new-found fitness and nerve to defeat Georgian and progress to quarter-finals of the Autoglass Classic

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The Independent Online
CLARE WOOD became only the fifth Briton to advance to the quarter-finals in the 15 years of the Brighton tournament yesterday. She defeated Leila Meskhi, the seventh seed, 6-3, 7-6, and today will play the 18-year-old Mary Pierce, the third seed.

Holding her nerve when the Georgian world No 35 recovered from being a set and 3-0 down and threatened to push the contest into a third set, Wood added her name to those of Sue Barker, Jo Durie, Annabel Croft and Sara Gomer. Only Barker, who won the event in 1981, and Durie, a finalist in 1983 and a semi-finalist with Croft in 1985, have progressed further.

It is the first occasion that Wood, a 25-year-old local player, has featured in the last eight of one of the higher-grade tournaments on the Kraft Tour, and her progress guarantees to raise her world ranking from 104 to approximately 84 as well as adding dollars 8,450 ( pounds 5,700) to her bank account. She defeated Pierce in straight sets in their only previous match, in Palm Springs two years ago.

Meskhi has built a reputation for unsettling leading players. Last month she eliminated the American teenager, Jennifer Capriati, in the first round of the United States Open. Last year she defeated Gabriela Sabatini in San Diego, and in 1991 she had the resolve to serve out a match against Martina Navratilova in South Carolina the morning after rain had delayed the finish overnight at 5-4 in the final set.

In the second round of the Autoglass Classic here yesterday, Wood's improved fitness and dedication ensured that an encouraging performance did not lead to an anti-climax after almost two hours. She displayed more trepidation when holding a newspaper for a circus performer to split with a whip at the players' party the previous evening.

For a set and a half, it seemed that Meskhi, who had won their two previous matches as 19-year- olds, would be swept away. Wood won the opening nine points. Then, having established a 3-0 lead, she was able to subdue her opponent's attempts to get back into the set, helped, on occasion, by some feeble shots into the net by Meskhi and one or two kindly net-cords.

When Wood broke twice early in the second set, even the most sceptical observers of the British game began to believe in a victory. It was then that Meskhi began to strike the ball with a greater degree of accuracy and Wood's serve began to falter. She hit two double-faults in the fourth game, the second of them on break point.

Meskhi broke again to level at

3-3, and the spectators were treated to a thrilling finale of splendid stroke-making under pressure, outstanding retrieving and lengthy rallies, one of which went to 46 shots.

Wood averted a possible crisis after double-faulting on her first match point at 6-4 in the tie-break. It was her seventh double, and thankfully the last. She then contrived a sliced forehand drop shot to end the suspense on the next point, winning the shoot-out, 7-5.

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