'Rain Man' in element over freak weather

Alan Mills, the tournament referee for the Dubai Duty Free Women's Open, spent 23 years incurring the public's wrath as the official who ordered the Wimbledon courts to be covered when the skies over south-west London opened. The "Rain Man", who retired from his post at the All England Club last year, was in his element yesterday as players and spectators spent a frustrating day here dodging the showers.

Just half an hour's play was possible and only one of the quarter-finals started. Amélie Mauresmo and Svetlana Kuznetsova were playing a tie-break at the end of their first set when yet another burst of rain brought a premature end to the action, which had not got under way until late in the afternoon. An indication of how unusual the rain is here for this time of year came earlier in the week, when a day of light drizzle made the front page of Gulf News and brought some roads to a standstill.

The standard of play was what you might have expected from two women who had spent most of the day wondering whether they would ever get on court. The set was littered with unforced errors and Mauresmo had to claw her way back after a poor start which saw her lose the first three games. The Australian Open champion had been two points away from losing the set but led 3-2 in the tie-break when play ended.

Mauresmo is looking to extend her current winning run of 16 matches. She has won both tournaments she has played since Melbourne, beating Mary Pierce and Kim Clijsters in the finals at Paris and Antwerp respectively, and victory in the tournament here would see her reclaim her position as world No 1.

Even if her run ends here, the Frenchwoman looks certain to return to the top of the rankings at some stage over the next month. She moves on to Doha next week, while Clijsters, the current No 1, has pulled out of next month's tournament at Indian Wells through injury. As last year's champion there, the Belgian would have been defending a large number of ranking points.

The field aiming to block Mauresmo's route to her second Dubai title could hardly be stronger. Clijsters is the only woman in the world's top five who is not here and all the leading players, including the resurgent Martina Hingis, have reached the quarter-finals, which includes five former world No 1s.

If Mauresmo beats Kuznetsova, she is likely to face Justine Henin-Hardenne, who was her opponent in the Australian Open final. However, the Belgian is still not fully recovered from the stomach complaint which forced her to retire during the second set of the Melbourne final and faces a tricky opponent in Francesca Schiavone. The Italian pushed Henin-Hardenne all the way in a final in Sydney last month, having led 4-1 in the second set and 5-3 in the third before losing 7-5.

In the other half of the draw, Lindsay Davenport was in formidable form in her first match, beating Elena Likhovtseva 6-0, 6-0, and should have few problems in her quarter-final against Russia's Maria Kirilenko. The winner of their encounter meets either Hingis or Maria Sharapova.

If Hingis builds on the excellent form she showed in beating Anastasia Myskina in the previous round here, the crowd should be in for a treat - weather permitting.

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