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Maleeva and Sandu Headline First Day of Qualifying
by Prip
When I got to the courts, they were nearly empty except for unoccupied volunteers and players' guests milling about. Only two matches had started, one between Janet Lee and a young Indonesian wildcard, Wukirasih Sawondari; the other between Stephanie Foretz and Martina Sucha from Slovakia. I decided to head to the tournament office which was at the stadium building across the outer courts to get the qualifying draw, a media pass and the schedule for the day.

When I came back, the matches were already into the first few games, and a handful of people had arrived, all of them concentrated on the court where the Indonesian as playing. Which was only natural, I suppose, since both were Asians and Indonesia is right next to Malaysia, where the tournament is held. The trend throughout the day (and the tournament, I suppose) was to support the Asian player if there was one playing. Tennis is not exactly the most popular sport in Malaysia, and I would be surprised if more than 5 people knew any of the players from the main draw of the Tier III event, let alone the qualifying draw of one. Anyway, Janet Lee looked like she had things in control, so I opted to get a look at Martina Sucha's game.

The Slovakian and French players looked pretty even at the start. At 4-4. Stephanie Foretz was serving, and she hit a beautiful wide serve to set up an easy down-the-line shot. She hit the shot cleanly inside the line, and it looked like it was going to be a winner, but somehow Sucha scrambled across the court and flipped the ball back high, but obviously way too short, and it landed about a foot from the net on the opposite side. Stephanie had the whole court to choose from, but chose instead to hit it into the net 2 feet away. She couldn't believe what a horrible shot she'd made, and from the sound of the sigh her coach sitting beside me gave, he couldn't either.

Obviously Sucha felt she had to return the favour, and returned a second serve long on the next point. I know Christmas is near, but this was ridiculous. Sucha managed to get a break of serve, then served out the set to take it 6-4.

Seeing enough of the Slovakian's game, I decided to check out how the young Indonesian was doing. Janet had already taken the first set 6-3, and was up 2-0 in the second set. Sawondari had an all-court game that was pleasant to watch, but she wasn't experienced enough, or good enough at it, to hurt Janet's game much. Janet held onto the break of serve to take the match 6-3 6-3.

On the adjacent court, the diminutive Rika Hiraki was two-fisting her way to victory against Tathiana Garbin, and had already taken the first set 6-3 (sound familiar?). The first point I saw, Garbin had set up a point nicely with her harder-than-average serve, but missed the cross-court putaway - the theme for most of the match. Rika had a little trouble keeping the ball in, and a lot of her shots sailed long.

The morning had turned into noon, and people were slowly filing in. Friendly clouds rolled in, and the day got a little cooler, much to many players' delight. Janet cleared up her match 6-3 6-3, and I went back to the other court to see Sucha finishing off her marathon match against Sephanie Foretz 6-4 6-4. However, Stephanie surprised me and fought valiantly to take the match to three sets and after a long struggle, she took the second set 7-6(4). I didn't wait around to see how the third set would go because a match I was waiting for was about to begin...

...on the adjacent court between Raluca Sandu and Virag Csurgo. The statuesque player from Romania had been walking around earlier and I had passed her several times in the corridors. Anna who? The first game started very well, and went to deuce several times before Raluca held serve to take the first game of the first set. It looked like things would be getting interesting on a day of disappointing tennis so far.

I must say that Raluca Sandu has a fantastic single-handed backhand. I was tempted to offer her coach my house in exchange for some backhand tips. At the start, her backhand was just ripping, and she made full use of it to immediately break serve. Unfortunately for her, after more brilliant play, Virag broke back to bring the set back on serve. Frustrated, Raluca slammed the ball on the court while walking back to her seat.

At 2-all, things started to go wrong for Raluca. The ball kids for some odd reason were totally lost at what to do, and the umpire had to constantly direct them around. I would think that they'd get some practice before this. Throughout the day, I'd see frustrated players getting more frustrated at having to wait for balls. In addition to having to wait for the ball several times, the ball kid at the near end (where she was playing at the time) must have had a coordination problem because he kept throwing the balls at her feet instead of at a convenient distance. I nearly laughed when he actually threw three balls in a row at her feet.

Oh. I must explain my situation at the time. I was sitting right at the chain-link fence where there were little squares cut out of the wind-shield and was watching the match and snapping away (not so often during actual play, cause I'm sure the players would have found the noise distracting). So I was actually practically on court, right behind the player on the near end.

After picking out 2 balls that she thought would be good to serve with, Raluca was in mid-toss when the umpire asked her to wait because a ball-kid was still running back to his place. This really disrupted her rhythm, and she must have had enough of the ball kids by then. She mumbled something in the general direction of the umpire, waited for a while, then started her serve again. She was apparently affected by the various incidences, and started playing terribly. Some guy sitting quite far away (her coach, if I'm not mistaken) said something that sounded like some words of encouragement, and they worked to some extent, as she lost serve, headed to her chair, swigged some water, wiped her face with her towel, took a moment, and came back on court with a more focused look on her face. She broke serve again, and this time it was Virag who had a frustrated look on her face. Raluca held her next service game easily. Down 3-4, Virag's service game went to deuce, and she took the advantage to hold a chance of evening out the set, but blew a half-volley to bring it back to deuce. On the next point, Raluca smacked an amazing backhand cross-court service return winner. More frustration. Facing break point yet again, Virag hit an easy down-the-line shot wide to give Raluca a 5-3 lead.

Serving for the set, Raluca stepped up to the plate while Virag looked rather lacklustre. Looking rather invincible, Raluca took a 40-15 lead. As if afraid to actually win the first set, she double-faulted. One break point saved for the Hungarian. Her next service landed in the net, and by the looks of things, I cringed at a Sabatini flashback. Raluca hit a powder-puff second service, but Virag hit the return both long and wide to give the Romanian the first set.

At the start of the second set, Virag served with new balls. Raluca hit yet another backhand winner, and I started clapping, when I realised that I was the only one clapping. I turned to look around, and I suddenly realised that I was the only one watching the match! Even Raluca's "coach" wasn't there anymore. One of the reasons might have been that the courts that they were playing on didn't have bleachers while the other two did, so most people were sitting there in the shade while yours truly pulled up a chair to the fence and parked there. Anyway, Raluca was on the near side of the court, and smiled at me in appreciation. Naturally, I smiled back. Unfortunately, she hit her next return of serve right into the net. Unfazed, she went on to get an early break of serve in the second set. She went on a groove after that, and didn't have much trouble taking the next two games. As she turned around walk to the other side of the court to return serve, she started fanning herself with her hand, and said to me in a mock desperate voice, "Air! Air!". She finished off the match easily, letting her opponent take only one more game, and as she walked out of the court, I had a few words with her.

I had gotten up to see what was going on at the other courts, but looked to maybe congratulate Raluca for a good match, and she was walking in my general direction, caught my eye and smiled, so I walked towards her, shook her hand and congratulated her on a good match. She said thanks, and I asked her how she found the playing conditions so far. She said that it was hot and humid, and told me that she hadn't had time to acclimatise yet as she just arrived the day before because of visa problems. Not wanting to delay her from reaching the air-conditioned players' lounge, I wished her good luck in her next match and said that I hoped to see her reach the main draw. She said thanks again, and headed straight for the players' lounge entrance 5 yards away.

Marion Maruska and Yi Jing Qian took the court next, and it quickly became a grunting competition. Yi was clearly the better grunter, but Marion didn't mind as she was ahead in the set and giving the Chinese trouble with her high topspin forehand. Marion broke serve to go up 3-1. As if on cue, Jing Qian immediately broke back, and that got Marion mumbling to herself and her group of player-friends sitting behind me shouting words of encouragement. Note that I was sitting in the same position as the Sandu-Csurgo match. After yet another well-constructed point by Yi, Marion quite audibly chastised herself in German (I understood, but I don't think the umpire did), and went up to serve. A volunteer had to pick that moment to show up with a newly-strung racquet of Marion's, and the umpire asked her to wait while the boy carried the racquet to her chair. Marion asked the umpire something, and the umpire said that the boy was carrying her racquet, to which she said "I don't *have* a racquet", throwing her hands up in the air in an exasperated expression. Things then really started going downhill for her then, and after another good set-up by the Chinese, Marion quite nearly slammed her racquet into the back-fence. Nearly, that is, until she noticed that she was about to slam her racquet directly at the fence in front of me. She thought the better off it (racquet abuse, anyone?) and released her frustrations verbally at the linesman instead. Seeing some action on the practice courts, I headed there instead. After a while, the second match I was waiting for was about to start.

Magdalena Maleeva and Daphne Van de Zande took to the court and started warming up. The match was pretty much uneventful, with medium rallies, and the usual unforced errors, mostly coming from Van de Zande (from now on referred to as Daphne). Throughout the first few games, Maggie tried to end a few points quickly with drop shots, but was very unsuccessful at it, popping it up too high so that Daphne had an easy shot to put away. Finally, after what must have been the 6th attempt, she finally got one short enough. After that, her drop shot (which she used very often) never failed again. Much to Daphne's frustration. Maggie broke serve once to take the first set 6-4.

Nothing seemed to be working for Daphne in the second set, and the Belgian constantly chided herself for making silly unforced errors. She also kept looking at her coach who looked rather nonchalant to me but gave her some words of encouragement. Before long, Magdalena took a 4-1 lead, and was serving. Two quick games later, she had the match wrapped up 6-4 6-1.

I went down from the bleachers to have a few words with Magdalena, and she was very nice, but rather shy. So I just congratulated her, asked if she was planning on starting her year at the Aussie Open (to which she said, "Hopefully, and I'll see you there."), and wished her good luck in her next match. Oh yeah. She also autographed my large inflatable tennis ball.

The matches after that were nothing spectacular, so I basically went from court to court to check out what was happening. Annabel Ellwood had a marathon match against Iroda Tulyaganova, who sprained her ankle midway through the second set and had to have the trainer out, but she managed to go the distance anyway and stretched Annabel to three sets, 7-6(4) 3-6 6-4. By then, only two matches were left, and I watched both, sitting on the bleachers and looking over on the other courts every so often, where Evelyn Fauth and Julie Scott had another long match. For some odd reason, there was a lot of screaming going on on that court. Julie Scott took the match 6-1 1-6 6-4 and Zsofia Gubacsi defeated Andrea Vanc 6-1 6-3 on a court where Jelena Kostanic had handed Yoshiko Sasano of Japan a 6-1 6-1 drubbing in the previous match and had immediately headed to the practice courts for a long session after.