Mel South was leading 6-0, 1-0 here at the French Open yesterday when Nick Bollettieri gave his verdict on Michelle Larcher de Brito, the British No 3's Portuguese opponent, who is one of the most promising pupils at his Florida academy. "She's a great fighter," said Bollettieri, who was watching from the sidelines out on Court 14. "She never gives up. If she can just win a game she'll build on that. Don't count her out."
Nearly two hours later Bollettieri was nodding in approval as 16-year-old Larcher de Brito celebrated a remarkable 0-6, 7-6, 7-5 win on a day when all three British women went out in the first round. Anne Keothavong suffered a crushing 6-0, 6-0 defeat by Dinara Safina, the world No 1, while Katie O'Brien lost 6-1, 6-1 to Olga Govortsova.
South's exit was especially disappointing given her form in the first set, which she took in just 22 minutes with a succession of crashing ground strokes. At 1-0 and 30-30 in the second set, however, South served a double fault and then put a volley long to let Larcher de Brito back into the match. A contest that featured 17 breaks of serve swayed one way and then the other, but South, having failed to serve out at 5-4 in the second set, repeatedly had to come from behind in the decider and eventually lost on her opponent's fifth match point.
Larcher de Brito is playing in her first senior Grand Slam event but is already armed with lucrative endorsements, a loud grunt, an American accent and on-court antics that might have infuriated a less phlegmatic opponent. Almost every winner, not to mention some of South's mistakes, was greeted by screams of "C'mon!" or exaggerated fist pumps.
However, there were no complaints from her opponent. "I'd seen her before on YouTube," South said after the match. "I expected there would be some pretty loud screams, which actually got louder as the match went on. She's a pretty feisty opponent."
South, a 23-year-old from Surrey who lives near the All England Club at Wimbledon, is a formidable ball striker, but knows she needs to work on her fitness. In recent weeks she has been working at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton with Jez Green, one of Andy Murray's team, and believes she is already feeling the benefits.
Bollettieri was impressed with South. "She can serve well and has very good ground strokes," he said. "She moves well for a big girl, but you can see that lateral movement is a problem for her. Whenever she's pushed out wide she can struggle."
No British woman has won a match here since 1994, when Clare Wood beat Gigi Fernandez in the first round, and the best chance of that run ending vanished when Keothavong was drawn against Safina. The Russian, runner-up here 12 months ago, is in outstanding form and had too much power for the British No 1, who admitted she was nervous at the start. Keothavong had her chances to get on the scoreboard, particularly in the fourth game of the second set, when she was 40-0 up but then put a forehand into the net and served two double faults.
O'Brien, who got into the main draw as a "lucky loser" thanks to a withdrawal, never got going against Govortsova, a 20-year-old from Belarus who is 35 places higher in the world rankings at No 78. The match was over in less than an hour with O'Brien unable to take any of her three break points.
Maria Sharapova, in the second week of her comeback following shoulder surgery, made a shaky start against Anastasiya Yakimova before winning 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. She now meets a fellow Russian, Nadia Petrova.
Perfection in Paris: Nadal sets record
*Rafael Nadal, unbeaten here since making his debut four years ago, set a French Open record when he won his 29th match in succession yesterday, beating Brazil's Marcos Daniel 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. "I obviously wasn't at my best level, but I started to play better in the third set," he said afterwards.
Roger Federer, beaten by Nadal in the last three finals here, beat Alberto Martin 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Italy's Potito Starace will meet Andy Murray after his opponent, Mischa Zverev, retired hurt.Reuse content