Baltacha back in the groove to stand on the brink of Dubai Open

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The Independent Online

Only a fortnight ago Elena Baltacha lost in the first round of a Challenger tournament in Jersey where the total prize-money was less than £15,000. Yesterday the 22-year-old Briton reached the final round of qualifying for the Dubai Duty Free Women's Open, in which nearly £600,000 is at stake.

Baltacha dropped only one game in beating Croatia's Martina Gregoric in the first round but faced a much stiffer test against Mashona Washington. The 29-year-old American, ranked 113 places higher in the world at 97, is a veteran of more than 500 matches but was comprehensively outplayed as Baltacha won 6-2, 6-3 despite regular distractions. Washington twice had treatment from a physiotherapist and a ball-girl was carried off after falling ill.

"It wasn't easy to concentrate at times, but I'm delighted with the win," Baltacha said. "I was pleased with the way I held my nerve on the big points."

Baltacha will play in the main draw alongside the likes of Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Lindsay Davenport, Amélie Mauresmo and Martina Hingis if she can win her final qualifier today against Kateryna Bondarenko, who is from Baltacha's native Ukraine.

Bondarenko's sister, Alona, accounted for another Briton in qualifying, beating 14-year-old Jennifer Smith 6-0, 6-0.

In Antwerp, Mauresmo, the defending champion, claimed her third title in succession when she beat the world No1, Kim Clijsters, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final of the Proximus Diamond Games yesterday.

It was the first meeting between the world's top two players since an injury forced Clijsters to retire during their Australian Open semi-final last month.

Mauresmo went on to win the Open, her first Grand Slam title. Yesterday's win was her third in a row over Clijsters and came seven days after her triumph at the Paris Open.

However, the Frenchwoman had to come from behind after Clijsters broke her serve twice to take the first set.

Mauresmo gained momentum after going up 4-2 in the final set, taking advantage of errors made by Clijsters, who was tiring fast. "I had the chance to do it, but I came [up] a bit short and I felt it in my legs," Clijsters said.

A third win for Mauresmo next year will mean she keeps the diamond-studded racket worth €1m (£710,000). She heads for the Dubai Open in the knowledge that if she reaches the final, she will swap places with Clijsters at the top of the world rankings.

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