Romanian, Held Back by Political Turmoil, Reaching New Heights

Irina Spirlea says that her development as a tennis player was stunted because of the political climate in Romania.

The Communist regime of Nicolae Ceacescu had a reputation for intolerance, and Spirlea's father suffered because of it. Dumitru Spirlea, a 1972 Olympian in the pentathlon, was sanctioned after a letter he sent to a friend in Italy asking for coffee and cigarettes was intercepted by officials.

Irina, a promising junior player, was denied a visa to travel to tournaments for more than a year because of the incident.

Now the 20-year-old Romanian is in the fourth round of the French Open, having beaten 10th-seeded Mary Joe Fernandez, 6-4, 6-1, Friday. Her only previous showing in a Grand Slam tournament was a first-round defeat here in 1992.

Spirlea next gets No. 1 Steffi Graf, who beat Joanetta Kruger of South Africa, 6-0, 4-6, 6-2.

Advancing to the fourth round with Spirlea was compatriot Ruxandra Dragomir, who said of her country's showing: "I'm not so surprised."

No. 12 Mary Pierce, looking stronger with each outing, shut out Lori McNeil on Center Court at Roland Garros Stadium, 6-0, 6-0, and has dropped only two games in three matches. No. 7 Natalia Zvereva of Belarus also looked sharp with a 7-5, 7-5 victory over Judith Wiesner of Australia in a second-round match that had been suspended Thursday because of darkness.

No. 15 Helena Sukova of the Czech Republic joined Fernandez among the upset victims when she lost to Ines Gorrochategui of Argentina, 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (7-1).

Judging from recent weeks, Spirlea might be a rising star on the women's tour. She defeated Gabriela Sabatini in the second round of the Italian Open earlier this month before losing to Martina Navratilova in the semifinals.

Fernandez has not played much this spring. A 1993 finalist here, she has suffered from endometriosis, a condition of tissue growth in the uterus. She had surgery in late 1993.

Side effects to hormones used to control the condition have hampered her game.

"I've just been getting sick, and I'm tired and just not feeling well," she said. "For a while, I wasn't sure I was coming (to Paris)."

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