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Three-Set Thriller and Comeback Kid Headline Day Two
by Christopher Gerby

Angeles Montolio vs. Olga Barabanschikova
Women's Singles: First Round
Court 14

Sunday's New York Post annointed Olga Barabanschikova one of the players likely to make male hearts pound at the 1999 US Open. It takes more than a navel ring and a flirtatious spirit to win matches on the WTA Tour, however, and "the Belarussian Bombshell" ranks considerably lower (#68) in those rankings. She's a powerful player with a big serve, but she hasn't quite lived up to her potential. Maria Angeles Montolio (who apparently dropped her first name) doesn't seem to have that same kind of innate talent, but she's having a fine season and has actually passed Barabanschikova in the world rankings. Montolio's greatest claim to US Open fame: she faced Martina Hingis in the first Center Court match of the '96 tournament.

The Spaniard secured an early break, good for a 3-1 lead in the opening set. Barabanschikova badly missed two volleys in blowing a 40-0 lead in Game 5. She got on track in the following two games, though, breaking for 2-4 and staving off three break points for 3-4. The eighth game was also close, with Barabanschikova resorting to some moon balls just to change up the pace. It worked well enough for her to even the set at 4-4, but Barabanschikova was less than pleased with her play in Game 9. She made a loose forehand error on break point, lobbed a ball into the sky, and stuck her finger in her mouth (the international signal for vomiting). Olga battled in the following game, but finally lost the 6-4 set on a backhand error.

It was an indisputably pro-Barabanschikova crowd, but Montolio was quietling them by playing the more consistent tennis. Angeles won't blow anybody away, but at least she was careful about not beating herself. She jumped out to another 4-1 lead in the second set, capitalizing on numerous Barabanschikova errors. Olga was opting for her familiar changeover routine, listening to music on a little walkman during those 90-second breaks. She also had a stuffed animal sticking out of her bag -- a furry shark doll which I imagine was on hand for good luck. It didn't seem to be helping at this point, but Barabanschikova got back in the match by breaking Montolio in the set's long, tense sixth game.

Montolio's left thigh was heavily taped, but she was moving well. In fact, she flipped a running backhand past Barabanschikova to earn a break point. Olga then double faulted, falling behind 2-5. Just when it looked like Montolio was home free, she dropped serve again (this match was a veritable break-a-palooza) for 5-3. Olga hit an ace and a service winner in a surprisingly confident hold for 4-5. Momentum was on the Belarussian's side as she stuck a forehand winner for a 15-40 lead in Game 10. However, Montolio just would not go away. She dodged both break points, earned a match point, and prevailed when Barabanschikova sent a backhand just long.

Coming out on the wrong end of that 6-4, 6-4 loss had to be bitterly disappointing for Olga Barabanschikova, especially considering how close she'd come to turning the tables late in that second set. Nevertheless, she stuck around to sign quite a few autographs for the fans who had cheered her on. She may be a party girl, but she's got class. What Montolio has is a solid array of groundstrokes and a second round date with Paola Suarez of Argentina.

Vincent Spadea vs. Jens Knippschild
Men's Singles: First Round

Andre Agassi once called Vince Spadea a "classic journeyman," but that was before Spadea beat him last summer and won his first six matches against Top 10 players in '99. When recently asked who -- besides himself -- returns serve particularly well, Agassi said the first name which came to mind was Spadea. Having gone from "journeyman" to "giant killer," Vince is suddenly being taken seriously as one of the best young American players. He's even getting some gigs as a writer -- the daily journal he kept during the tournament in Cincinnati a few weeks ago was such a hit that Spadea was hired to write a US Open version for a popular web site. Would he have a happy tale to tell on Monday?

Spadea's first round match against Jens Knippschild was well underway when I arrived. Vince had a 6-3, 6-7, 7-5, 4-1 lead and was just two games away from surviving what had apparently been a first round scare. Spadea returned from a bathroom break at this point, but Knippschild just about sent him scrambling back to the john, blasting two aces and a service winner in a hold for 2-4. Spadea had to come up with some big serving of his own to dig out of a 15-40 hole in the following game. He got to 5-2, though, and the main reason for his commanding lead became clear when the match statistics were posted on the scoreboard. Knippschild had committed a whopping 97 unforced errors, compared to just 36 off Spadea's racquet.

Knippschild (whose thinning hair is no longer dyed the white/blond it used to be) thumped his 20th ace in a love hold for 3-5, but he was still behind the eight ball. The American cruised to a 40-0 lead in Game 9 and won the match on an errant Knippschild return. It had been no picnic -- two very close sets and a total match time of 2 hours, 23 minutes -- but Spadea passed his first round test. Next up for him is a bout with Guillermo Canas, the man who shocked Tim Henman on Tuesday. Knippschild, by the way, departed to a pretty hearty round of applause which he really seemed to appreciate.

Rainer Schuttler vs. Christian Ruud
Men's Singles: First Round
Court 9

Newport champion Chris Woodruff and Harvard alumnus James Blake filled the Court 7 stands before even arriving, so I ended up at nearby Court 9 instead. A considerably smaller crowd was there, watching former #1 player in the world Rainer Schuttler. Huh? Number One? Well, sort of. According to the half-baked ranking scheme the ATP plans to foist on the fans next season, all players will start with zero points on January 1st. Their "ranking" (the one the ATP wants us to accept, anyway) will be determined by the number of points they accumulate from that point forward. Schuttler surprisingly won a tournament in the first week of the '99 season, so -- had the goofy new system been in place -- he would have been the world's top-ranked player for a short time.

Schuttler is a somewhat flashy shot-maker, but he'll never be close to #1 under a real ranking system. I got to this first round match just as Christian Ruud was breaking serve for a 6-4, 6-3 lead. The players were dressed almost identically -- white hat, white shirt, dark shorts, white shoes -- but Schuttler was the one wearing his cap backwards. The first four games of the third set were fairly routine holds. Both players hit two-handed backhands, but Schuttler will sometimes take one hand off to hit a slice. Those little sliced shots were ending up in the net more often than not; Ruud capitalized with a hold for 3-2. As if being down two sets wasn't discouraging enough, the cooler behind Schuttler was empty. He walked over to Ruud's cooler, grabbing a drink and asking the court attendant, "This mines?"

Schuttler and Ruud exchanged convincing holds again for 4-3. The German kept scrambling from behind in the long eighth game, but finally lost it on back-to-back double faults. That gift was presumably all Ruud would need. The graceful Norwegian upset a 2nd-seeded Alex Corretja at this year's Australian Open and can play some pretty impressive tennis. But Ruud's backhand really let him down as he tried to serve out the match -- Schuttler won the game with a drop shot. Christian still led 5-4, though, and he closed out the match with an impressive love break. Schuttler made a hasty exit, but Ruud stuck around to conduct a post-match interview with what I'm assuming was a Norwegian reporter. The 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win sends him into a second round bout with the guy who was winning in the background, Chris Woodruff.

Karina Habsudova vs. Lenka Nemeckova
Women's Singles: First Round
Court 9

Not all that long ago, Karina Habsudova and Lenka Nemeckova hailed from the same country -- Czechoslovakia. However, that country's split makes Habsudova a Slovakian and Nemeckova a representative of the Czech Republic. Habsudova is possibly the most mercurial player on the entire tour. She cracked the Top 10 in early 1997, but has spent most of her time since languishing in the 60s and 70s. When she's on, she can give any player fits. When she's off, she sprays errors all over the court. She plays a low-percentage, low-finesse game, but it's been paying dividends lately. Habsudova finally broke through to win her first WTA Tour singles title this summer.

Habsudova got off to a rough start, losing the first three points. Nemeckova broke her there and held at love for a 2-0 lead. A pair of matching holds made it 3-1, but Karina got into her groove after that. She slugged her way to a break in Game 6, getting back even at 3-3. She closed out a hold with a service winner and broke at love with her punishing groundies. Habsudova had no difficulty in the ninth game, closing out a 6-3 set which went from tricky to routine when the Slovakian's powerful shots started landing inside the lines. Karina appears to have lost some weight since I last saw her and that's probably been a factor in her improved play.

Habsudova picked right up where she left off in the second set, breezing to a 4-0 lead, thereby running her streak to nine consecutive games. Nemeckova was playing purely defensive tennis at this point...and not playing it all that well. She held for 1-4, however, and took a 0-40 lead in the sixth game. Undaunted by the triple break point chance, Habsudova knocked off a pair of forehand volleys on her way to a hold for 5-1. Down match point in Game 7, Nemeckova sent one last backhand into the net. Lenka generally looked like the #103 player in the world she is, while Karina once again showed how dominant she can be when her big backhands and forehands are dialed in. Habsudova will face Ai Sugiyama in the second round -- a rematch of the topsy-turvy encounter they had in the 1997 US Open.

Maria Antonia Sanchez Lorenzo vs. Janet Lee
Women's Singles: First Round
Court 6

Maria Antonia Sanchez Lorenzo, like Karina Habsudova, recently earned her first singles title (at a small tournament in Belgium). And like Olga Barabanschikova, she was named in that New York Post blurb about the sport's "hunks" and "babes." As the quality of Sanchez Lorenzo's play has increased, so has the amount of attention paid to her striking beauty. (She reportedly had the boys "swooning" last week in New Haven.) Maria seems like a fairly low-key, demure woman, but she's not exactly been downplaying the sex symbol image this month. As this first round match was about to get underway, Sanchez Lorenzo removed her warmup jacket to reveal a tight, sleeveless, low-cut top. It had different colors from the tight, sleeveless, low-cut top she wore in last week's match against Venus Williams -- I guess Nike has been supplying her with a whole assortment.

Back to the actual tennis: Sanchez Lorenzo hits with two hands off both sides, switching her grip every time she goes from the backhand to the unorthadox forehand. She doesn't generate the power and angles you'll see from fellow two-fister Monica Seles, but she's no pushover either. Sanchez Lorenzo handily won the opening game against Janet Lee of Taipei. Lee held for 1-1 and both players hit a pair of aces in holds for 2-2. By the time Lee and Sanchez Lorenzo got to 5-5, this was becoming a bit of a rarity -- a serve-dominated women's match.

In Game 11, Sanchez Lorenzo double faulted for 30-30 and netted a backhand for 30-40. Her first serve on break point was ruled a fault by a chair umpire overrule. Sanchez Lorenzo doesn't feel comfortable enough speaking English to conduct interviews in that language, but she sounded fluent enough arguing the overrule. "You saw that far? Are you sure? It was right on the line. So you see better than her (the lineswoman)?" Perhaps a bit unnerved, Sanchez Lorenzo erred on the next point to surrender the match's first service break and trail 5-6. Lee, who is perhaps the tallest Asian on the women's circuit, took full advantage of the opportunity. She whacked an ace and three service winners in a love hold, wrapping up a 7-5 first set victory.

Sanchez Lorenzo and Lee continued to look very evenly matched, dueling to 3-3 in the second set. The Spaniard then reeled off three consecutive games: an easy hold, her first break of the evening, and a love hold to snare a 6-3 second set. The match was being overshadowed -- figuratively and almost literally -- by action on Court 7 (where the Jensen brothers inspired quite a bit of crowd noise) and Court 4 (which became very loud indeed when Alex Corretja and Wayne Arthurs battled into a fifth set). However, Sanchez Lorenzo and Lee were waging a compelling battle of their own and a growing number of fans showed up as the third set unfolded.

The first two games of Set 3 went to deuce, Lee and Sanchez Lorenzo both working hard to squeak out holds (the latter having to fend off four break points). Sanchez Lorenzo got a break point in the next game and won it with an unreturnable cross-court forehand. However, the dilligent Lee struck right back with a break for 2-2. Games 5 and 6 also went to deuce as this remarkably close, tense match advanced to 3-3 in the final set. The seventh game was yet another long one and it featured some of the evening's best rallies, both players forced to scramble all over the court and make creative shots. Lee finally held for 4-3 with another ace. Sanchez Lorenzo matched her at 4-all, but she had to go to deuce to do it.

Sanchez Lorenzo smiled after hitting a roundhouse smash like Jimmy Connors for 30-30 in the set's ninth game. Naturally, it went to deuce, just like every previous game in the set. Neither player was giving an inch and they were both coming up with dramatic winners in the clutch. Lee twice got the advantage with winning forehand volleys, but both times failed to convert the ad. She got a third game point with a winning backhand down the line, but Sanchez Lorenzo replied with a down-the-line winner of her own to force another deuce. Sanchez Lorenzo put up a perfect lob, which Lee smashed just long to bring up break point. Sanchez Lorenzo was finally equal to the task, driving a deep shot cross-court to set up an easy forehand winner.

It took a lot of hard work and perseverence, but the Spaniard finally had a winning lead, delighting fans who'd been shouting "Vamos Maria!" for more than two hours. Rather than disappoint them with a late letdown, Sanchez Lorenzo confidently served it out, slamming an ace on match point to complete a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 win over an equally gutsy Janet Lee. Sanchez Lorenzo was grinning from ear to ear as she lobbed a ball to her supporters. Her work is far from over, though, with 11th seeded veteran Nathalie Tauziat on her second round itinerary. However, you could excuse Sanchez Lorenzo if she savored the moment a bit, signing many autographs and accepting many congratulatory wishes.

Amy Frazier vs. Anne Miller
Women's Singles: First Round
Court 4

A year ago, a talented youngster from Michigan named Anne Miller earned an entire crop of new fans after a well played, refreshingly friendly third round US Open match against Monica Seles. And just like that, she vanished from the tennis scene, starting a new life as a college student at the University of Michigan. While stopping short of ruling out a comeback at some point in the future, Miller was adamant in the belief that she was not "going through a phase" and would not come quickly crawling back to the WTA Tour. She made good on her word for nearly 12 months, playing zero matches and completely losing her computer ranking in the process. However, she was granted a protected injury ranking and popped up in the '99 US Open draw, facing fellow Michigan resident Amy Frazier.

Miller fans will probably be glad to hear that she did not gain the infamous "Freshman 15" during her year at Ann Arbor. She came into the Open as fit and trim as ever and was striking her groundstrokes very well in a mid-afternoon practice session. However, a lack of match toughness apparently cost her at the start of her first round match. When I arrived (making the short walk over from Sanchez Lorenzo's win on Court 6), Frazier already had a 6-2, 2-1 lead. Miller hit a great drop shot in the set's fourth game and smiled broadly. She won the next point to take the game and was still smiling! Miller used to be one of the most self-critical players in the world, always badgering herself with sarcastic comments in the heat of battle. Annie has turned over a new leaf, however, and has finally learned to enjoy herself on the court.

Miller had a small but vocal group of guys rooting her on from a few rows behind her chair. When one of them excitedly pumped his fist after Miller won a point in Game 5, she looked over and shot him a sheepish grin. The wind had died down a bit by now, but it was still strong enough to play havoc with Frazier's unusually high ball toss. She double fauled a couple times in that game and lost it on a backhand error. Miller gave the break right back for 3-3, but Frazier double faulted to end Game 7. Miller held for 5-3 and got another big round of applause from her fans (let's call them "The Annie Miller Testosterone Brigade"). She looked over to them again, smiled, and shook her head, almost seeming to indicate that they were taking all of this more seriously than she was.

Frazier simply could not get her serve under control. Two more double faults in the ninth game helped cost her the set. Miller was now all even at 2-6, 6-3 and would be playing a third set in her comeback match. The Testosterone Brigade gave her a standing ovation as she strode to her chair, hiding her mouth with her shirt before unveiling another gleaming smile. The final set got underway with two holds, followed by two breaks. At 30-40 in Game 5, Frazier leaned into a backhand winner down the line, good for a 3-2 lead. Amy solidified the break, holding at love for 4-2. Miller scored a shutout hold of her own for 3-4, but Frazier pulled out a close game to extend her lead to 5-3.

Miller won the first point of Game 9, but a double fault and two errors put her behind 15-40. Frazier squandered the first match point, hitting a lob just barely long. Miller sent a backhand just wide on match point #2, though, and Frazier finally had a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win under her belt. Amy's been one of the better American players of the past decade, but her conservative game and low-key personality have garnered her relatively little attention. That was the case again here, as the autograph seekers and well-wishers all gathered around Anne Miller instead. Frazier moves on to a second round match against fellow veteran Natasha Zvereva. Where does Miller go? Read on.

"I don't know if it was an official retirement or an official comeback," Miller cryptically stated after the match. But seriously, where does she go from here? "I haven't fully made that decision -- the options are open." Specifically, she is still enrolled at the University of Michigan, where classes resume on September 8th. One idea Miller's considering is spending the fall semester there, then returning to the WTA Tour in early 2000. She does sound genuinely torn between college ("I had a great time...I love learning") and tennis ("There's only one chance in my life to do this, so why not?")

Even if she's still about as decisive as Hamlet, Miller is at least a happier person now than she was in '98. "The year off helped me grow up a lot, gave me perspective about what's important in life." For instance, the "negative attitude" which used to dog her is a thing of the past. Speaking of the Frazier match, she said "I had fun and that makes me happy. I came off the court feeling like a better person than I used to feel after matches." She was realistic about her first round effort: "It basically came down to not playing matches...My return was off." She admits that she won't be back in top form until she starts playing full-time again.

The fact that Miller is speaking about a full-fledged return to the circuit (whether it's now or in the next millennium) should be a relief to her fans. But there's still one matter left to tackle -- what's the deal with her first name? "Most of my friends call me Annie, but I started seeing Annie in the draws and I wasn't comfortable with that either," since her given name is Anne. Basically, she's sick of talking about it. "Either way is fine." Call her Anne, call her Annie, but don't call her retired. "I don't think that ever came out of my mouth, the word `retire.'"