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Spirlea May Face Old Foe

There were no bumps and no bruises, and no confrontations. But Irina Spirlea got plenty of reminders of what happened two years ago at the U.S. Open.

It took, oh, perhaps a minute or so before it was noted that if form holds for the next week, Spirlea could meet old pal Venus Williams in the quarterfinals.

Spirlea rolled her eyes, thinking, here it comes again.

"Quarterfinals?" she said after beating sixth-seeded Amanda Coetzer 6-1, 7-5 in the first round Monday. "Slow down. I cannot think so far."

Ever since she nailed Williams like a defensive tackle with a changeover bump in the semifinals in 1997 and punctuated the encounter with a stream of curses, the moment has defined Spirlea's career, especially at the Open.

"It is two years," she said, bristling just a little. "It is so old."

Still, in the prim and proper world of tennis, it was a shocker, one that led Williams' father to call Spirlea, "that big, tall, white turkey," further stirring things up.

The `turkey' has been chasing around the barnyard since, her game somewhat out of control since the bump at center court. She went from No. 8 in the world in 1997 to No. 15 last year to No. 20 this season. More troubling has been her early-round bailouts. In 11 tournaments this year, she's been past the second round just three times and not at all since the French Open.

So what's been wrong?

"In my game, nothing," she said. "In my head, everything. My game has been pretty good. My head, not so good"

That was evident against Coetzer, especially at the end of the match.

Spirlea was serving for the match when her game started falling apart all at once, buried in a sea of unforced errors and faults. She knew what was happening. She just couldn't do much about it.

"I said, `No, not again, don't do it again. Don't choke now.' It cannot be worse."

The pep talk didn't help. Spirlea dropped four straight points and the game.

The break at love gave Coetzer a chance to survive. But there wasn't much she could do about it, either. She was unable to get a point, broken right back, also at love.

It was a demonstration of the thin line between success and failure that these players walk in every tournament.

"Sometimes, it is so easy to be really focused," Coetzer said. "And sometimes, it's so easy to lose concentration."

Spirlea did not give her another chance and closed out the match, then left to listen to all the talk about the Williams feud.

"Everybody made such a big story of it," she said. "We were OK. It is so old. It's already gone."

So is Coetzer, wondering just what happened n a match she figured to win.

"I don't think I played very well," Coetzer said. "I never felt I had any idea what to do. I felt like my focus was not as it should be."

Spirlea understood. She's been down that road frequently. Most recently near the end of the match on Monday.

©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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