| Monica Seles hits a backhand return during her first-round match against Lindsay Davenport at the WTA Championship in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (AFP)
Los Angeles: Monica Seles fought off seven match-points to claim a 3-6, 7-6, 6-3 win over Lindsay Davenport on Wednesday and a place in the quarter finals of the $3 million WTA Championship.
Waiting for Seles in the next round is second seed Venus Williams, who made a winning return to the Championship after missing the last two due to injury. The world No. 2 dismissed Switzerland’s Patty Schnyder 6-2, 7-6.
Venus, winner of seven titles this season, and Seles have clashed in two other quarter finals this year, Venus coming out on top both times at the French and US Open.
The entertaining all-American first-round clash between Seles and Davenport, two of the WTA Tour’s best known players, attracted more spectators than the few hundred sprinkled through cavernous Staples Center earlier in the day for the first afternoon session.
But the gripping match was still played in front of more empty than occupied seats as the WTA’s season-ending extravaganza got off to a muted start.
Those in the stands, however, saw Seles do something she had never done before in her brilliant career — fight off seven match-points to register her first victory over Davenport in five years, ending a string of nine consecutive defeats.
The last time Seles walked off the court a winner against Davenport was also in Los Angeles — in the final at Manhattan Beach in 1997.
“It was definitely a weird match,” said Seles, who claimed the Championship three consecutive years from 1990 to 1992 when it was held in New York. “Lindsay got frustrated and I got lucky. I don’t think I’ve ever given up that many match-points in my career.”
Davenport, who did not begin her season until July after recovering from knee surgery, looked the fresher of the two, grabbing control when she broke Seles to go in front 4-3.
She won seven straight games to take the opening set and a 3-0 lead in the second.
But Seles, who had played in just one event since the US Open, refused to fold.
Playing with the aggressiveness that was absent in the opening set, Seles began to go for her shots, capitalising on her first break opportunity then forcing it to a tie-break.
Seles’ comeback appeared to fizzle as Davenport raced to a 4-0 lead but despite numerous match-points could not finish off her feisty opponent, Seles taking the tie-break 8-6 to extend the match.
In the third set the momentum had clearly swung in favour of Seles, who broke at 5-3 and then held serve to close out the match.
“It’s a match you should put away,” said Davenport. “There is no question she plays well when she’s down and definitely steps it up a level. I would love to go back and do a handful of those points again... maybe just one of them.”
In other opening day action, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters registered convincing straight-sets wins to set up an all-Belgian quarter final.
Henin’s 6-3, 6-3 victory over Russian Elena Dementieva was followed by Clijsters’ 6-1, 6-2 demolition of American Chanda Rubin.
The winner of two of her last three events, Clijsters needed just 57 minutes to dispose of Rubin — the only player to have beaten world No. 1 Serena Williams in her last 37 matches.
The quarter-final clash will mark the seventh time — fourth this season — that the Belgian rivals have met as professionals. Clijsters holds a 4-2 edge.
Henin claimed victory in their last meeting, on clay in the semi-finals in Rome.
“It’s always a little special,” said Henin. “It’s a different match for us than to play another player.”