Davenport and Venus Williams grab quarterfinal spots in season-ending tournament

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By the width of one of the beads in her hair, third-seeded Venus Williams narrowly escaped with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 victory over the wily Conchita Martinez on Wednesday night in the final first-round match at the Chase Championships.

By the width of one of the beads in her hair, third-seeded Venus Williams narrowly escaped with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 victory over the wily Conchita Martinez on Wednesday night in the final first-round match at the Chase Championships.

The Spaniard changed spins, direction, placement and pace, anything to throw off the timing of Williams, one of the favorites to capture this season-ending tournament at Madison Square Garden. It nearly worked.

In the night's first match, second-seeded Lindsay Davenport also needed three sets to advance to the quarterfinals, downing Amelie Mauresmo of France 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Earlier in the day, the tournament's first upset saw Germany's Anke Huber oust No. 8 Julie Halard-Decugis of France 6-1, 6-2.

The Williams-Martinez match was a battle of tactics as well as strokes, the power of Williams against the heady play of Martinez.

At deuce in the eighth game of the final set, Martinez hit a sharply angled backhand volley, then began to pump her fist in triumph. Instead, the ball was called wide - just - giving Williams the advantage. Williams won the next point to break serve for a 5-4 lead, then held her own service to gain a berth in the quarterfinals.

"She hits a lot of balls back," Williams said. "She was definitely hitting the ball better than what she usually hits in other matches."

Williams began the match as if she would be able to relax and watch the 10 o'clock news. Instead, she struggled for 2 hours, 10 minutes as both players probed for weaknesses, testing each other's resolve.

"She hit a lot of floaters, never really produced so much power," Williams said. "Plus she hits a lot of short balls, but they are not the kind of short balls that sit right there. They are so short they are below the net and you have to kind of lift it up."

It was a masterful display of tennis. But it couldn't overcome the quickness, the speed, the range and the power of Williams.

"I was happy with the way I played," said Martinez, who had her left thigh wrapped during the match and twice received treatment on the court. "It felt like the old me. I was hitting my forehand the way I used to."

She was aided by a shaky Williams when things got close. Serving at 5-5, 40-love in the second set, Williams double-faulted to begin a string where she lost six of seven points and her serve. When Martinez held at 15 in the next game, the match was even at one set apiece.

"I didn't expect such a tough match," Williams said. "I haven't gone three sets in a long time. Usually when I get in a tough second set, I'm able to pull it out. I find a way to get back in it. But this time I just failed.

"But I did come out on top. That's what goes in the record."

Williams will play seventh-seeded Barbara Schett of Austria in the first quarterfinal Thursday. The night's second match will pit defending champion and top-seeded Martina Hingis against No. 5 Mary Pierce.

Davenport was hampered by a strained left hamstring and bedeviled at first by the hard-hitting Mauresmo.

Davenport had her upper left thigh heavily taped to begin the match. Mauresmo, who upset Davenport in the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, didn't help as she kept Davenport on the run along the baseline with her powerful, penetrating ground strokes.

Mauresmo raced to a 5-1 lead and served for the opening set before Davenport began turning things around. It began inauspiciously, with the French right-hander taking a 40-15 lead. Davenport, whose victories this year include Wimbledon, took the next four points to break serve, then held at 30 to pull to 3-5.

Despite double-faulting three times, Mauresmo fought through five deuces to hold serve and capture the first set.

After that, it was all Davenport. She won four of the first five games in the second set and the first four in the third, never allowing Mauresmo to get back into the match.

Twice during the match - once in the first set, the other after the opening game of the second - the WTA Tour trainer attended to Davenport during changeovers. Each time she just talked to Davenport, who said she was in pain but decided to forego additional taping.

In the day's first match, Halard-Decugis became the first seeded player to be ousted from the elite, season-ending, 16-player field.

It was a battle of close friends: Huber was maid of honor at Halard-Decugis' wedding. That made no difference when they faced each other.

Huber only needed 44 minutes to grab a quarterfinal berth where her next opponent will be Davenport.

Halard-Decugis never was in her match against Huber. Using her powerful ground strokes, especially off the forehand side, the German kept her opponent behind the baseline racing side to side. Time and again, Halard-Decugis just watched as another Huber winner went streaking past on the far sideline.

Huber won twice as many points - 54 to 27 - and had 24 winners to just seven for the French woman.

"I played very well right from the beginning," Huber said. "I didn't let her come into the game. I think she wasn't ready for it, really."