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Sports Today

Sunday 2 January 2000

Maleeva makes no promises as comeback continues
By Michael Crutcher

Former teenage star Magdalena Maleeva has been through enough heartbreak on the tennis circuit to realise she is foolish to make any predictions about the future.

But the Bulgarian is quietly confident of upsetting a class field when the $260,000 Australian Women's Hardcourt Championships begin on the Gold Coast today.

While Russian star Anna Kournikova will again attract the crowds, French top seed Julie Halard-Decugis will start favourite in the tournament which includes grand slam winners Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez.

But Maleeva's progress will provide plenty of interest as she strives to return to the lofty heights when she was once ranked the world No.4.

It's been almost eight years since Maleeva announced her arrival on the circuit with a stunning second round win over Martina Navratilova at the US Open.

Maleeva, 24, is the youngest sister of the famous tennis family which produced fellow top-10 players Manuela and Katerina.

Injury has plagued her career, with shoulder problems forcing her out for almost 18 months.

She returned to the circuit nine months ago and was soon on the sidelines again, this time battling an unusual stress fracture in her left arm.

But Maleeva has regained her health and confidence, leading to a courageous tournament win in Thailand in November when she came through the qualifying rounds.

``I'm feeling really well at the moment and my goal this year is just to play and stay healthy,'' Maleeva said.

``I'm excited about it but I'm not setting goals yet. I just want to play for about six to eight months without injury and then I'll assess things.

``There were times when I thought I may not play again but mostly I was just feeling very frustrated having to stop playing.''

Maleeva said she was capable of winning on Gold Coast if she played to her best, but she faces a tough first-round clash with Australian teenager Alicia Molik.

``It's not going to be easy for me because I've only played in 10 tournaments in the past year and there's some very good players in this tournament,'' Maleeva said.

Maleeva had her first look at Molik when the pair practised on Thursday and she was impressed with the 18-year-old's powerful serve.

That clash will be one of several interesting first round matches, highlighted by the showdown between defending champion Patty Schnyder and Wimbledon semifinalist Mirjana Lucic.

While Halard-Decugis and Kournikova received first round byes, Martinez will meet Austria's Sylvia Plischke and Sanchez-Vicario will play fellow Spaniard Maria-Angeles Montolio.