Belgian teen-ager upsets Sanchez-Vicario

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The Independent Online

Kim Clijsters was a smashing hit in her Madison Square Garden debut.

Kim Clijsters was a smashing hit in her Madison Square Garden debut.

The Belgian teen-ager gained a spot in the season-ending Chase Championships after five higher-ranked players withdrew with injuries. She then took matters into her own hands, overpowering fifth-seeded Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 7-5, 6-4 to wrap up on Monday night's first-round matches.

In the opener, Conchita Martinez, Sanchez-Vicario's Spanish Fed Cup teammate, survived a bundle of errors to eliminate Elena Likhovtseva of Russia 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the tournament's Garden finale. The season-ending tournament, which has been a Garden mainstay since 1979, will move to Munich, Germany, next year.

Tuesday's play gets under way at 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT) with eighth-seeded Chanda Rubin taking on Amanda Coetzer. In night singles matches, top-seeded Martina Hingis plays Julie Halard-Decugis before No. 7 Anna Kournikova meets Jennifer Capriati.

The first round will be completed Wednesday with No. 6 Nathalie Tauziat against Amy Frazier in the day match and No. 3 Monica Seles against Sandrine Testud followed by No. 2 Lindsay Davenport against Elena Dementieva in evening contests.

Clijsters is considered one of the future champions on the WTA Tour, having reached the final of two tournaments in Germany in her last two outings, falling to Martina Hingis in Filderstadt and beating Likhovtseva in Leipzig. That was the form she showed on the Garden carpet, keeping Sanchez-Vicario running along the baseline until she found an opening for one of her rocketing ground strokes.

The 17-year-old from Bilzen, Belgium, raced out to 5-2 leads in both sets. But the veteran Spaniard showed why she is playing in her 12th consecutive Championships, refusing to go down without a fight.

In the first set, Sanchez-Vicario won three straight games, losing only one point in the last two, to pull even at 5-5. Then it was Clijsters' turn to increase the firepower and she fought through five deuces before holding serve in the 11th game, then broke her opponent at 15 to close out the opening set.

Clijsters, ranked 19th in the world, reached match point in the ninth game of the second set. And again Sanchez-Vicario battled ferociously, chasing down every ball and sending them back with authority, breaking her young opponent to get back on serve.

But Clijsters regrouped and broke right back to gain a spot in the quarterfinals of the dlrs 2 million tournament.

In the night's first match, Martinez looked like anything but a winner in the early stages, hanging on the baseline and showering her topspin forehands high, hard and either wide or long. Twenty-seven minutes after play began on the blue carpet, Likhovtseva had captured the opening set, as much from her opponent's errors as her own winning shots.

The second set began with Martinez winning the first two games, a peek at what was to come. But again Likhovtseva took advantage of the Spaniard's flurry of unforced errors to win four straight games and take a 4-2, 0-30 lead.

"I thought I was going to lose that match," Martinez said.

She had help, however, as Likhovtseva began pounding the ball into the net or hitting long. Martinez won the next four games, rallying from an 0-40 deficit in the 10th game to level the match at one set apiece.

"I was in control at 4-2," Likhovtseva said. "I just stopped playing my game."

The third set was a copy of the second. After trading service breaks to begin the set, the two stayed on serve until the eighth game when Martinez rifled two forehands down the line for winners, then watched Likhovtseva make a couple of unforced errors as she broke her opponent. Martinez completed her victory by holding serve at 15, grabbing a spot in the quarterfinals of the 16-player event when the Russian buried a backhand service return into the middle of the net.

"It feels good to come back fighting," Martinez said. "I can stick around for at least one more match."

Likhovtseva lost in the first round of the Championships for the second straight year. She can console herself, however, with a check for dlrs 30,000, the amount all first-round losers collect.

This week's champion will pocket $500,000, with the other finalist earning $250,000.

Results from the $2 million Chase Championships of the Sanex WTA Tour tennis tournament being played at Madison Square Garden:

Singles First Round

Conchita Martinez (4), Spain, def. Elena Likhovtseva, Russia, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. Kim Clijsters, Belgium, def. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 7-5, 6-4.

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