Bovina Heads for the Heights

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KEY BISCAYNE, Florida — Yelena Bovina, a 189-centimeter-tall Russian who cracked the top 100 in women's tennis this week, has finished growing. But she's not ready to stop climbing.

The 18-year-old Bovina won her first-round match Wednesday at the Ericsson Open, beating Ruxandra Dragomir Ilie 6-1, 7-6 (7-5).

Bovina rose to 99th in the rankings by reaching the quarterfinals last week at Indian Wells. She's one of eight Russian women in the top 100, a record for the country.

Bovina is also one of the tallest players on the tour, but expects no more growth spurts, and she's glad.

"Phew, I had a lot of problems, not only with my knees but with elbows and ankles and all that stuff," said Bovina, whose slightly broken English only enhances her teenage charm. "You grow, and the muscles, they are still tight. Believe me, you get some trouble with the knees for sure."

Bovina is healthy now and into the second round, where she'll face another talented youngster, 18-year-old Justine Henin of Belgium.

All seeded players had a first-round bye, which made for a lackluster opening-day schedule. The sparse crowd stirred when Andre Agassi walked onto stadium court late in the afternoon to practice.

Andy Roddick, the top American teenager on the men's tour, beat Harel Levy 6-3, 6-2 and will next face 1998 champion Marcelo Rios. Todd Martin, playing his first match after being sidelined for six weeks with a back injury, lost to Max Mirnyi 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. Andreas Vinciguerra of Sweden defeated American Justin Gimelstob 3-6, 6-2, 6-0.

Three-time champion Pete Sampras faces a tough opening match against former top 10 player Nicolas Kiefer, who beat Michel Kratochvil 5-7, 6-0, 6-4.

Bovina is part of a burgeoning Russian tennis scene that only begins with Anna Kournikova. Yelena Dementieva, 19, is ranked 11th; Lina Kratnoroutskaya is ranked 61st at age 16; and the juniors program is thriving. Even so, Bovina said, practice partners can be tough to find when she's home in Moscow.

"You take your book and find the telephone, and you call this one and this one and like, for maybe two hours, you try to find someone," she said. "And there's nobody.

"Then you take a girl that's three years younger than you because you just need to see a girl on the opposite side. And she can't even hit the ball. So, like, whatever. Who cares anyway?"

Bovina took up tennis in Morocco when she was 3 or 4. Her father worked at the Russian Embassy, and her older sister played tennis there.

"She was practicing every day, and I was just running and picking up balls for her," Bovina said. "The coach asked, 'Just try to play to hit a ball.' I hit it with the backhand so good, it flew just down the line.

"He's like, 'Whoa, you should try.' I'm like, OK."