When Chanda Rubin takes to Court 18 against Iva Majoli today, it will be with the added gravitas of being the Eastbourne champion for the second year running.
Rubin safely defended her title on the windswept south coast with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win over Conchita Martinez in an eventful final which confirmed the 27-year-old American's increasing legitimacy in the world's top 10.
For so long a player of immense promise, Rubin looked to be making the breakthrough when she reached the Australian Open semi-finals in 1996 and led the No 1 seed, Monica Seles, 5-2 in the final set. Though she tightened to lose the last five games, that was seen by many as her springboard into the élite of women's tennis.
But a hand injury sent her fortunes plummeting, and by the time she teamed up with her coach, Benny Sims, in May 1998, her ranking was down in the 70s. It has taken time to improve it, but Rubin's second Eastbourne title should be much more satisfying than the first, given that this year's field included eight of the top 13 players on the WTA Tour. It also makes her an outside bet for Wimbledon, though certainly behind the Williamses and the Belgians.
Having bounced back from two match points down against Jennifer Capriati on Friday, Rubin needed to keep her focus, composure and even her dignity in an eventful final. The match was delayed by two and a half hours after a hoax caller phoned twice just as the players were due on court. The best tennis came in the first set, but the climax ended a somewhat drawn-out final set which featured two injury time-outs for Martinez.
Having fought back from an Achilles tendon problem in 2001, Martinez is playing at close to the level that saw her win Wimbledon in 1994, and in her first grasscourt final since then, her judicious use of the slice was a perfect foil for Rubin's greater power. On several occasions Martinez pulled Rubin into the net only to lob her, displaying court-craft seldom seen on the women's tour these days.
Yet the bright lass who spoiled Martina Navratilova's party in that Wimbledon final is now a more sullen figure on court, and she knows all the tricks. Her two time-outs one for a jarred left hand, the other for a thigh strain after doing the splits may have been genuine (she was having an X-ray yesterday to see if they will keep her out of Wimbledon), but they were also fortuitously timed to break Rubin's rhythm, and for a while they did. The 31-year-old Spaniard also stayed just inside the time regulations, though often because it seemed the umpire Alison Lang was using a stopwatch made for measuring train times on the London underground.
All of which made Rubin an even more popular champion, especially as she showed no outward displeasure at Martinez's stalling. She missed two match points at 5-2 in the deciding set, but her attacking strategy paid off in the 10th game, as she broke Martinez to 30.
Martinez starts her Wimbledon challenge tomorrow against Milagros Sequera, a qualifier from Venezuela.