Hantuchova's confident return beats Mauresmo

A commonly used phrase at Eastbourne this week is "preparation for Wimbledon", but the Hastings Direct championship can today revel in having a finalist for whom their event is probably more important than Wimbledon.

A commonly used phrase at Eastbourne this week is "preparation for Wimbledon", but the Hastings Direct championship can today revel in having a finalist for whom their event is probably more important than Wimbledon.

After more than 12 months of anguish centred around eating issues which caused her world ranking to plummet from five to 54, Daniela Hantuchova is back in a final. She got there yesterday with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over the top seed and world No 4 Amélie Mauresmo which bore all the hallmarks of the confidence and fluent strokes which made her the most exciting new player in women's tennis two years ago.

It was only her second win over a top-five player, and symbolically the first came 27 months ago when her victory over Martina Hingis in the final at Indian Wells catapulted her to the verge of the world's top 10. Yet the last time she played on grass was a year ago at Wimbledon, when her tearful 12-10 final set defeat to Shinobu Asagoe was the most public announcement that the tall Slovak was in crisis.

Since then she has resumed proper eating, made something of a break from the members of her family who used to tour with her, and hooked up with her former coach Nigel Sears, whose East Sussex heritage (he grew up, and lives, 15 miles from Eastbourne) makes Hantuchova's run to the final additionally popular at Devonshire Park.

"This is exactly what I needed," she said. "I just couldn't wait to get my confidence back. Now I feel good about my game, and I just want to win as many matches as I can, whether it's this week or next week." Hantuchova has the satisfaction of having won a high-quality match against an opponent who at times looked the modern equivalent of Martina Navratilova (whose abortive attempt to win the consolation tournament on a neighbouring court drew almost as big a crowd as the main draw semi-final). Mauresmo has chosen to serve and volley much more, generally looking very comfortable, and had she been able to build on the two service breaks she took in the first and fifth games of the final set, she would have enhanced her credentials as a Wimbledon favourite.

But this was Hantuchova's moment, and midway through the final set Mauresmo's game fell apart. Having profited from a rain delay two points after dropping the opening set, Hantuchova returned with confident, fluent tennis in the second and third sets, making the second the outstanding set of the week so far. And she won the match with a precision down-the-line forehand off a well-angled Mauresmo volley.

In today's final, Hantuchova plays Svetlana Kuznetsova, who beat Vera Zvonareva 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1 in an all-Russian semi-final.

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