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Jun 11th, 2003, 09:02 AM
O'DONOGHUE DRAWS ON EXPERIENCE
By Ian Laybourn, PA Sport

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Jane O'Donoghue drew on the experience of playing Venus Williams on Wimbledon centre court to help her win the battle of Britons at the DFS Classic in Birmingham.

The 20-year-old from Wigan, who shot to prominence when she took on the defending champion at the All England Club a year ago, ousted British number one Elena Baltacha from the first round at Edgbaston Priory.

It needed the retirement of Baltacha with a recurrence of a back strain to pave the way for O'Donoghue's first-ever appearance in the last 32 but, after coming from a set down and saving one match point, the pendulum had begun to swing decisively away from the British number one.

"Venus has a really big serve and so has Elena," said O'Donoghue. "That really helped me. I just stood my ground when the 120mph serves were coming down."

O'Donoghue won only two games against Williams but, now full-time under coach Nick Brown, she insists she is a far better player 12 months on after making marked improvements to her game.

"I've got rid of the big dip in my serve, it's much more flowing now," she said. "My percentage has improved and my second serve is holding up.

"My backhand used to be a weakness but that's really improved this year."

O'Donoghue, who has once more been awarded a wild card for Wimbledon, faces another big test today when she faces the number three seed Magdalena Maleeva, the world number 13 from Bulgaria.

Another Wimbledon wild-card recipient, Anne Keothavong, the only other Briton left in the main draw, will open proceedings on centre court against Stephanie Foretz, the world number 89 from France.

It was a tale of two backs on the opening day of the Birmingham tournament, with former Wimbledon semi-finalist Anna Kournikova also pulling out through injury.

The 22-year-old Russian pin-up drew a big crowd to the practice courts in anticipation of her first-round match against Dally Randriantefy, of Madagascar, but her fans were in for a big disappointment when she made a tearful withdrawal.

Kournikova has been plagued by back trouble ever since the Australian Open in January and aggravated the injury in practice at Roehampton last Thursday.

She will return to America for a full assessment, ruling her out of the Hastings Direct International at Eastbourne next week and casting a huge shadow over her appearance at Wimbledon.

"I've been advised not to play this week or next week and I don't know any further than that," she said. "They said my injury was chronic because it keeps coming back.

"I'm devastated, not to be able to play in Birmingham. Grass is my favourite surface and I love playing in England, so having to pull out because of my back is the last thing I wanted."

Baltacha, meanwhile, allayed fears that she could be forced to miss Wimbledon, where she reached the third round a year ago.

"I'm hoping I'll be able to play Eastbourne next week," she said. "I'm really looking forward to Wimbledon but I'll take it a day at a time."