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Aussie women criticise coaches

THE first Australian woman to win a match at this year's Australian Open believes there is a negative culture which prevents the country's best from having the self-belief to win against the world elite.

Cindy Watson, a 23-year-old from Melbourne who turned to Chinese training techniques and meditation to lift her playing career out of a dramatic downward spiral, believes Australian coaches tend to be overly negative compared to their American counterparts.

As a result, Australia's women players lack the confidence and mental strength to compete against the world's best.

"I think Australia generally is quite a negative country," Watson said after beating Spain's Maria Jose Martinez in straight sets for her first win in a grand slam.

"If you are in America for example, if you miss the ball they will find the positive in what you did rather than in Australia, it is always what you did wrong. That is not necessary.

"You know yourself that you have done something wrong, but constantly being told, you just get down on yourself.

"The difference is mental. They play the bigger points better. They are just so mentally stronger. We can all play. Everyone can play. It is just a matter of doing it at the right time."

As a theory, it is not Watson's alone. Bryanne Stewart, another first-round winner yesterday, accused Tennis Australia of favouritism in its treatment of its top players, favouritism she said that had resulted in her being without a coach for the summer.

Amanda Grahame, Watson's doubles partner who lost her singles match yesterday, was not critical of Australian coaching but did agree it was difficult for women in this country to develop the self-belief necessary to make the jump from satellite tournaments to grand slams and WTA events.

And as a theory, it found a striking resonance in the fate of Alicia Molik who, at 20, is arguably Australia's most talented women's player.

When Molik took the court against Russian Tatiana Panova, it looked a complete mismatch.

Molik is a statuesque player with a fluent serve, penetrating ground strokes and good touch at the net.

Panova, a full 20cm shorter, merely uses her serve to start the point and has no apparent assets beyond a punchy forehand and stubborn refusal to give up.

Molik won the first set 6-1. At the start of the second, when she earned one break point after the next against the Panova serve, it appeared to be a mismatch nearing its conclusion.

Yet more than two hours later, it was Panova who had won 10-8 in the third, surviving three match points along the way.

Which perhaps explains why Panova is 20 points higher than Molik in the world rankings and came into this tournament as a seeded player.

If there is a negative culture in Australian tennis, Molik tried to distance herself from it.

Despite converting just four break points from 17 opportunities and making unforced errors on two of the three points that would have won her the match, Molik reasoned she tried her hardest.

"If a girl like Panova killed me one and two, there wouldn't be too many positives, but the fact that I got myself in a position to win . . . I guess I can look at that as a positive," Molik said.

But for all this peculiar logic, Molik conceded that at several crucial stages in the match she had either become a "bit nervy", lost belief in her own ability or failed to "step up to the plate".

All in all, it was a day of mixed fortunes for Australia's women. Molik, Grahame and Rachel McQuillan joined the day one exodus, while Watson, Stewart and Nicole Pratt, who this week overtook Molik as Australia's top-ranked player, moved into the next round.