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Monday, September 27, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tennis / Usta Women's Challenger -- Surprised At The Start, Li Pulls It Out At The End

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

KIRKLAND - At first she was unrecognizable. Forehands, lobs and precise backhands all skimmed in corners of the court and had Fang Li zigzagging all over trying to return the ball.

After Li lost the first point in the USTA $75,000 Women's Challenger at Central Park Tennis Club, she wondered, "Is this really Yi Jing Qian?"

The two grew up playing tennis together, representing China many times in international play. They rank 1-2 in their native country, Li being the No. 1 player.

But Li had never seen Yi play like this.

"She really surprised me," Li said. "I was just trying to keep the ball in the court."

After splitting the first two sets, Yi became recognizable.

Trailing 5-1, she had five unforced errors to lose the final point and give the match away. Yi was serving and led the last point 40-love before letting Li work back into the game.

Li won the Challenger 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 yesterday and collected a $13,750 winner's check. It's her 10th straight match win and second USTA Challenger title in two weeks.

"I was working hard out there," Li said. "This was very new for me. I've only lost to her twice and this is the toughest she's ever played me. I feel grateful to have won."

The 2 1/2-hour match featured several long rallies. At first they were friendly, but late in the match, the rallies became aggressive. Yi placed slicing line drives and spinning trick shots everywhere on the court, only to have Li get the ball back.

After hitting the ball into the net, Yi propped her hand on her hip, dropped her racket and sighed. She had played 153 games in eight matches this week to reach the finals. The unseeded Yi upset the No. 2 seed, Lilia Osterloh of Ohio, 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinal round.

"Winning those early matches instilled confidence in Yi," said Jeff King, who coaches Yi and the Chinese International Team. "The scores aren't close, but it was a close match. There were just too many unforced errors."

Seeded fifth, Li had one three-set match and lost only three games in her first three matches. She defeated Marissa Irvin 6-3, 7-6 to reach the finals. Irvin, a freshman at Stanford, beat the Challenger's No. 1 and No. 8 seeds to advance. King had Yi prepared for Li and the championship final. A native of Chicago, he coached the latter in 1998 to a top-40 world ranking. This season he's focusing on the eight-member Chinese team.

"Yeah, we all know each other very well," King said. "So, it's tough to pull any surprises."

In doubles, No. 2 seeds Nana Miyagi and Debbie Graham upset No. 1 seeds Kristine Kunce and Rachel McQuillan 6-3, 6-1 for the USTA Challenger. Miyagi was born in Chehalis and grew up playing tennis in Yakima. She was the top junior in Washington before moving to Okinawa, Japan, and becoming a Japanese citizen. She has represented Japan in the Fed Cup games. Graham is a former NCAA singles champion from Stanford.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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