reports from Brighton
Before dropping out of her home tournament yesterday, Clare Wood came up with a startling shot: the no-handed backhand. Her grip slipped as she stretched for a ball lobbed by Helena Sukova, and her racket landed on her opponent's side of the net.
The premature departures of Steffi Graf and Jana Novotna had left the international women's event desperate for a touch of enterprise as the show draws towards a close after a run of 18 years, but that was not exactly what the organisers had in mind. "Clare's a very dangerous player," Sukova said, "speaking in general terms."
It is doubtful that Wood would have reached the ball anyway, and when she failed to keep a forehand in the court on the next point, Sukova was a break up after the opening game and on her way to a 6-2, 7-6 victory and a place in the quarter-finals.
To be fair, Wood competed well after losing the first four games and might have extended the contest but for double-faulting and hitting a forehand over the baseline when leading 2-0 in the second set. She had pushed Sukova to three sets in their previous two matches (the Czech now leads their head-to-head series 5-0).
Wood, who received a wild card, was guaranteed a return to the world's top 200 after winning her opening match against Karina Habsudova, of Slovakia, and has set herself the target of a place in the top 50 by this time next year. It is encouraging to know that the British women's game is not lacking in optimism.
The 30-year-old Sukova is ranked No 20 and on her day poses a threat to the best. Indeed, having reached the final on her last two visits to the Brighton Centre, and witnessed the elimination of the two players who denied her the title - Graf in 1990, Novotna last year - the sixth seed must be quietly fancying her chances of taking the first prize of pounds 51,633.
Before leaving the Czech Republic for Brighton, Sukova checked Teletext for news about the tournament. "I read that Steffi Graf would be playing a qualifier and that the real competition would come in the final when she played Jana Novotna," she said.
Events do not necessarily go according to plan or seedings. When the Brighton tournament began in 1978, the top seeds, Chris Evert and Virginia Wade, gave way to Betty Stove and Virginia Ruzici respectively, and Ruzici defeated Stove in the final. Sue Barker was among the first-round losers, but in 1981 became the only Briton to win the title.
Sukova's next opponent is Magdalena Maleeva, the third seed. The Bulgarian lost the opening set of her match against Germany's Barbara Rittner, 1-6, but recovered to win the next two sets, 6-4, 6-1.