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Navratilova Has to Struggle Against an Undaunted Foe : Tennis: Dechaume-Balleret puts up a fight before losing in second round at Manhattan Beach, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4).

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alexia Dechaume-Balleret of Monaco is never going to match Martina Navratilova’s accomplishments.

But none of that mattered Wednesday night during the second round of the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles in Manhattan Beach.

Dechaume-Balleret, one of the faceless names on the women’s tennis tour, elevated her game to new heights in losing to second-seeded Navratilova in a dramatic three-set tiebreaker before 5,724 at the Manhattan Country Club.

No. 84 Dechaume-Balleret fell behind 4-0 in the third set, and looked as if she would quickly disappear but rallied before losing, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4).

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“I had to play some great tennis to win that match,” Navratilova said. “I opened the door for her and she certainly slammed it open.”

It was not supposed to start like this for Navratilova, 37, playing in her first match since losing the Wimbledon final to Conchita Martinez last month. Navratilova, who has won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, is playing her final season after 20 years.

Dechaume-Balleret, 24, started the year ranked 350th, and although she is slowly moving up the rankings, she has done little to gain attention. She reached the fourth round of the French Open but had to qualify to play at Wimbledon. She lost in the second round at the All England Tennis Lawn Club to Kristie Boogert of the Netherlands.

She lost to top-ranked Steffi Graf in the second round of the Toshiba Classic in Carlsbad last week, 6-0, 6-1.

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So, there was little indication that Dechaume-Balleret, who did not play last year because of a wrist injury, was a threat to spoil Navratilova’s farewell to Los Angeles. Navratilova, after all, has won the Manhattan Beach tournament eight times.

But Dechaume-Balleret was undaunted. By mixing her shots and remaining poised, she turned a routine outing into a eventful match.

“At first I was so nervous. . . . I was a little tight,” Dechaume-Balleret said.

That was evident. Navratilova had little difficulty controlling the first set with a tough serve-and-volley game. But Dechaume-Balleret got into the match by forcing Navratilova to stay on the baseline.

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And somewhere along the way, she regained confidence. So, when trailing 4-0 in the third, Dechaume-Balleret did not quit. Instead, she zeroed in on the lines and started hitting them.

There was little Navratilova could do but shrug her shoulders at some of those pinpoint shots.

“At the beginning of the third set, it was difficult to pass her,” Dechaume-Balleret said.

But when she ran down a drop volley and passed Navratilova to close to 4-2, she pumped her fist, showing emotion for the first time during the match.

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From that point, Navratilova was in a fight. Even when she had match point on Dechaume-Balleret’s serve in the 10th game, it was a battle. Dechaume-Balleret held.

Navratilova did not take control of the tiebreaker until the eighth point when she lunged at a deep ball and hit it a cross-court winner. That seemed to spell the end for Dechaume-Balleret. Navratilova won the next three points to advance.

“I’m sure she doesn’t play like this very often,” Navratilova said. “If she did, she would be ranked higher.”

Tennis Notes

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No. 70 Elena Likhovtseva of Kazakhstan defeated No. 48 Pam Shriver, 6-0, 3-6, 7-5, after trailing in the third set, 3-1. Shriver won seven of eight games at the end of the second set and the beginning of the third, but Likhovtseva, 18, did not fold. “I felt very close to taking control in the third, but I couldn’t,” Shriver said. “She returns so well it put pressure on me.”

When Shriver tied the score, 5-5, on consecutive points, Likhovtseva answered with four in a row to take a 6-5 lead. Then she displayed her tough return in the 12th game. Shriver took a 40-30 lead on an ace, but Likhovtseva won the next three points to advance.

Likhovtseva will face top-seeded Conchita Martinez in the third round.


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