Rubin ousted but Harkleroad restores American pride

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The Independent Online

Few judges, including her father, Edward, who presides in Louisiana, would have expected Chanda Rubin to feature in the women's singles final at the United States Open here. But it was reasonable to believe that the eighth-seeded Rubin would help carry the American flag beyond the first round in the absence on the Williams sisters.

Instead, Rubin became the first major casualty of the tournament yesterday, losing, 6-4, 6-4, to Maria Vento-Kabchi, of Venezuela, in the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Rubin, the 27-year-old Eastbourne champion, had won her two previous matches against Vento-Kabchi, but this was their first meeting since 1997.

The 29-year-old, ranked No 84, has won titles on the minor circuits but has yet to make her mark on the WTA Tour. She defeated Rubin yesterday by serving the more steadily and making only half as many errors during their 72 minutes on court.

"It was a really bad match for me," Rubin admitted. "I just didn't play with enough glue, with enough consistency, didn't concentrate well enough. I really wasn't ready to play this morning." Asked if her recent shoulder injury had played a part in the defeat, given her lack of match practice, Rubin said: "You definitely don't like to have an injury going into a Grand Slam [tournament], but I wouldn't say that was a factor, based on the way that I played.

"I can't remember playing quite this bad. Being the US Open Centre Court makes it worse than playing this bad somewhere else, at a smaller event."

Amelie Mauresmo, of France, the fifth seed and a semi-finalist here last year, defeated Angelique Widjaja, of Indonesia, the 2001 Wimbledon junior champion, 6-0, 6-2. Widjaja found it hard enough keeping pace with the powerful Mauresmo without donating seven double-faults to her opponent.

As 13 Russian women competitors (minus the injured Anna Kournikova, who is interviewing celebrity spectators for television) lined up for the opening round, the 16-year-old Maria Sharapova seemed slightly offended to be asked if she had looked at the draw beyond her match against Virginia Ruano Pascual, of Spain.

"Of course I look at the draw," Sharapova said. "It's not like I hide the second or third round. I know this is the US Open, not some Tier Five [event] in Asia or something. It's not like I'm here playing with Barbie dolls."

Sharapova, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, is well aware that a win against Ruano Pascual would put her on course for a possible meetings with two seeded Americans, Alexandra Stevenson (No 31) in the second round and Jennifer Capriati (No 6) in round three.

"I know that every round is tough," the 54th-ranked Sharapova said, emphasising that she does not take anything for granted. "I haven't played a tournament in two weeks but I feel in good shape. Hopefully good things can happen and I can get to the next round. When I do get to the next round, I'll tell you how I feel about my next opponent."

It has not taken long for the Kournikova-type hype to build up around Sharapova here, and her rivals are paying close attention to her progress. "I haven't changed as a person [since Wimbledon], you know," Sharapova said. "I think my tennis went up a notch. I'm getting as much experience as I can right now. But, of course, many of the players have seen how I play." She smiled and added: "I don't know if they're snooping on my game or something."

Russian women are making an impact on the sport, Sharapova said, "because they all want to be No 1 in the world. They're fighters. They're very talented and work hard to develop their talent."

Sharapova's compatriots made an encouraging start, with wins for Nadia Petrova, a French Open semi-finalist, Vera Zvonareva, and Elena Likhovtseva. But Vera Douchevina, who won the first point of the tournament, was beaten by the American Ashley Harkleroad, 6-4, 6-2.

Harkleroad missed three tournaments en route to Flushing Meadows because of an elbow injury. "I was very excited with the way I played today after being out for most of the summer," she said. The 18-year-old, ranked No 52, is an attractive player who draws photographers lenses but firmly believes that her tennis is her best asset. "I think I am maturing and growing into my game, having confidence," she said.

In the men's singles, Juan Carlos Ferrero, the French Open champion and third seed, opened proceedings on Louis Armstrong Court by defeating the Czech Jan Vacek, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Ferrero's compatriot Tommy Robredo, the 17th seed, did not fare so well. Robredo, a quarter-finalist at the French Open was eliminated by a fellow countryman, Fernando Verdasco, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

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