Capriati, the seasoned sage of the circuit, offers determined Baltacha encouragement

There was was a neat echo of the special relationship here on Centre Court yesterday, a meeting on the lawn between an American and a Brit. Jennifer Capriati and Elena Baltacha shared the same ground in SW19, but, as is the case in politics, there was never any doubt about which was the dominant figure here.

There was was a neat echo of the special relationship here on Centre Court yesterday, a meeting on the lawn between an American and a Brit. Jennifer Capriati and Elena Baltacha shared the same ground in SW19, but, as is the case in politics, there was never any doubt about which was the dominant figure here.

It was not quite a match, not quite an exhibition, and the 6-4, 6-4 scoreline was a little kind to Baltacha, but it was difficult to find a loser out there. Capriati now progresses and history tells us that the quarters, and even possibly the semis, will be the limit of her ambition.

Baltacha was the last British woman in the draw (Jane O'Donoghue went out earlier in the day), the last of the four second-round survivors from these islands. So it is a measure of the small mercies available in domestic women's tennis currently that this eventuality was considered a success. Twelve months ago not a single British woman was left standing when the smoke from the first round had cleared.

More personal for Baltacha was the simple function of just being able to hit tennis balls competitively. In 2002 she suffered two successive bouts of tonsilitis, chicken pox and liver complaint, the last of which was serious enough to threaten to force her permanently outside the tramlines. She was, for all intents and purposes, a one-woman hospital ward.

In the face of this medical history, it was something of a surprise that the Kiev-born player was not brought crashing through the Wimbledon doors on a trolley. Baltacha, in fact, wore a croupier's visor above her spectacles, Capriati a purple bandanna, and it was the bandit ware which stole the first game, to love, on Baltacha's serve.

Capriati developed a 5-1 lead in that first set, but then somehow let the mouse escape. Balatacha reeled off three solid consecutive games before her opponent's claws came out again.

Baltacha worked briskly, producing a little skipping dance on the baseline before she served, exhaling noisily at points of maximum effort. She should have learned a lot. Capriati's ground shots were far too solid, her angles too clever. She had too much gumption, in fact, too much of everything.

Throughout, Balatacha's strength was also her weakness. The harder she hit her thundering serve, the harder it seemed to come back to her. Like a furnace, Capriati is nourished by power. The more she was fed, the hotter she became.

Still, the New Yorker acknowledged readily that it had been more of a challenge than she had anticipated. "I didn't expect her to play so well," Capriati said. "She hit a lot of balls back and she was also hitting a big serve. I just kept looking at the radar. I was blinking my eyes. "Are those really coming like 116, 118 there?

"I think she's got potential. She has some talent there, especially on the serve. She also moves so well. I think that's going to take her a long way, the drive. She obviously does have a lot of determination. I think that's half of it, the hunger and just wanting it. The rest is obviously taking care of her health and making sure she doesn't overdo it, coming back from an illness. She should just make the best of it now while she can. It's not going to last for ever."

It was rather peculiar to hear Capriati sounding like a seasoned sage of the circuit. This was the 17-year-old, we remember, who walked away from the game, pierced her nostril and navel, wore black boots and adopted the grunge look. She was arrested for shoplifting and possession of marijuana in a Miami motel room. Her party-mates said heroin and crack cocaine had also been on the menu. Now she is available for wise counsel.

The former "phenom" is still going at 28 in her 15th year as a pro, and while time may have stolen some of her former speed it has not robbed her of desire.

"I think I have a chance," she replied when asked about her tournament prospects.

Capriati continues on the jungle trail and far bigger beasts lie ahead for her. Elena Baltacha has slain the biggest of them all. This was all a little different from the exotica of Hull, Sunderland and Redbridge, competitive locations from earlier this season, but even to play there must have been a treat.

The age of 20 is a bit young to be told it is all over, but now Baltacha's congenital liver problem is under control. She has a fruitful tennis life to look forward to.

Baltacha's sometime doubles partner, Jane O'Donoghue, was in action on court 13, the graveyard of cliches, and the beneficiary of the remaining patriotic swell against Iberian opposition in her match against Spain's Magui Serna. There was another neat symmetry to this result, 6-3, 6-3 to the woman from Las Palmas.

O'Donoghue lost to Venus Williams on her first foray here in 2002 and yesterday she was up against Jupiter. Serna sported a pony tail and cap, but it would be unfaithful to report this as the outstanding feature on first impression. The Spaniard is left-handed, but clearly ambidextrous at the table judging by her dimensions. She wore an outrageously ambitious tight skirt.

O'Donoghue appeared tall and slim by comparison, but then most people would. Serna's weight, according to the players' handbook, is 143lbs, which means she must have had a very good breakfast yesterday morning. Yet there was some lightness about her, a deft touch on the drop shot and a dancing bear's nimbleness around the court. Now it is time for the big calorie burner. Next up for her is Serena Williams.

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