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It's a Name-Brand Event

Tennis: Most of top players are in Carlsbad tournament, which also marks Kournikova's return, reconciliation with Hingis.


CARLSBAD — There are the usual diversionary issues when the women's tour makes its way to Southern California, and this two-week journey to Carlsbad and Manhattan Beach is no different.

That's what happens when Anna Kournikova, Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and Venus and Serena Williams are in the same vicinity. But, usually, beyond the extra concerns at these events--is Kournikova really married or not?--are some legitimate developments.

Namely, the groundwork for the U.S. Open in August is put down here at the Acura Classic and next week at the event at Manhattan Beach. The last four winners of the U.S. Open, starting with Hingis in 1997, won at least one of these two hard-court tuneups.

Lindsay Davenport won three California events in 1998 leading into the U.S. Open, Serena Williams won at Manhattan Beach before her Grand Slam breakthrough in New York almost two years ago, and her older sister, Venus, won at Stanford and La Costa before winning the Open last year.

Capriati could be the next player on the list. She is seeded third here behind Hingis and Venus Williams, but passed Williams to become No. 2 on Monday in the latest WTA rankings.

She has won two Grand Slams this year, the Australian Open in January and French Open in June, and reached the Wimbledon semifinals. Hingis, who has not won a Grand Slam in more than two years, has a tenuous hold on No. 1.

"I think I'm one of the players that maybe has a shot," Capriati said. "We're all so close there. Below Martina, there is me, Venus, Lindsay and everyone is playing such good tennis right now.

"So it's going to be difficult. I know I have to do well every tournament if I want to get to that spot. I could be passed at any time."

The Acura event has the best field--outside of a Grand Slam--and even has a more impressive roster than the Indian Wells tournament had in March because Capriati did not play there.

Capriati won't play next week in Manhattan Beach, but Hingis, Davenport, Kim Clijsters and two-time champion Serena Williams are scheduled to appear. The only players in the top 10 not showing up in Southern California are No. 6 Justine Henin of Belgium and No. 7 Amelie Mauresmo of France.

If form holds here, Hingis could face Clijsters in the quarterfinals and Capriati, Seles or Meghann Shaughnessy in the semifinals. In the other half are Venus Williams, Davenport and Nathalie Tauziat.

Clijsters, who defeated Davenport to win at Stanford on Sunday, reached a career-high No. 5 on Monday, moving past her countrywoman Henin. There was speculation that 2000 French Open champion Mary Pierce could come back from a long injury-imposed layoff at Manhattan Beach, but Monday she accepted a wild-card for the next event, in Toronto.

Traditionally, the opening day at these events is light on star power and Monday was no exception until the doubles match.

Yes . . . doubles.


Because it featured the long-awaited return of Kournikova. The 20-year-old Russian had not played a tournament in six months because of a stress fracture in her left foot. Until recently, it was unclear when or if she would return, as closely guarded as a state secret.

The other surprising component was her choice of doubles partner, Hingis. The two had parted, acrimoniously, after a successful partnership. Hingis said she wanted to concentrate on singles but the root of the problem was traced back to an exhibition in Chile late last year.

Reports of the Chilean dispute varied wildly. You half expected the two to be parodied on "Saturday Night Live." Dueling divas.

Hingis and Kournikova defeated Leizel Huber of South Africa and Laura Montalvo of Argentina, 6-1, 6-1, in the first round Monday with little fanfare. They came into a five-minute news conference, accompanied by jittery handlers, with the media ordered to ask only about doubles.

Why did they resume their doubles partnership?

"Because we're great together," said Kournikova, who will begin singles play tonight.

They said they made the decision three weeks ago and also are playing Manhattan Beach, and yes, they are friends again. But neither would commit on the spot to playing doubles at the U.S. Open.

Kournikova said she felt good on the court, saying: "I was surprised I didn't make too many mistakes. It's like we never stopped playing."

Said Hingis: "Now that I really haven't played as many matches since Wimbledon, I just felt I needed some practice."


Featured Matches

10 A.M.

* Alexandra Stevenson vs. Kristina Brandi

* Evie Dominikovic vs. Monica Seles

* Martina Hingis vs. Lilia Osterloh

7 P.M.

* Anna Kournikova vs. Nicole Pratt

* Barbara Schett vs. Chanda Rubin

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