Louise Latimer and Karen Cross gave English sporting pride a much-needed lift after the Euro 2000 soccer blow-up by overcoming top-100 rivals in the first round of the DFS Women's Classic at Birmingham.

British No.1 Latimer hammered Dutch opponent Seda Noorlander, who beat Jennifer Capriati at Wimbledon last year, after Exeter's Cross put out up-and-coming Croat teenager Jelena Kostanic, ranked 80th in the world, also in straight sets.

The double British triumph came on the day American star Alexandra Stevenson, the first women's qualifier to reach a Wimbledon semi-final last year, suffered another major setback to her latest grass-court campaign.

Stevenson, beaten in the third round of last week's Powder Byrne Trophy at Surbiton by Latimer, who went on to claim her first senior British title in that event, flopped this time against nimble Japanese opponent Shinobu Asagoe, who ran out a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 winner against the No.10 seed from California.

World No.44 Stevenson, whose big, booming delivery was spectacularly unreliable, twice lost five games in a row immediately after breaking Asagoe's serve, now moves on to the star-studded Direct Line Championship next week, desperate for more grass-court match practice.

But Latimer, playing just a few miles from her Sutton Coldfield base, and Cross, No.4 in Britain, are clearly making good progress towards earning Wimbledon wild-card entries after meeting in the first round at Surbiton last week.

Latimer prevailed in that one after losing the first set and, at her local Edgbaston Priory Club, she registered her sixth win in a row. ''I knew that if I could get at her early it would put her on the back foot.''

In fact Latimer broke serve at the first time of asking and never looked back, claiming a 6-4, 6-0 success in just about an hour, which means a return meeting tomorrow with Thailand's Tamarine Tanasugarn, whose title she plundered in the final at Surbiton last Saturday, in the second round.

Cross now meets American Lisa Raymond, the sixth seed, and is relishing the challenge of a serve-volley specialist after a baseline battle of left-handers against Kostanic, which she won 6-2, 6-2.

''It was much closer than the score suggests,'' said Cross. ''I had to fight off two set points on two of my service games in the second set, but I was pleased with the way I closed out the match.''

The major players are closing in, though, on the British challenge. Lorna Woodroffe, who was the first and only home winner in the tournament on Monday when she beat Australia's Rachel McQuillan, was no match for third seed Capriati, who triumphed 6-1, 7-5 even though Woodroffe made a gallant fight of it at the end.

Former teenage prodigy Capriati, back in the world's top 10 after rebuilding her career following two years out of the sport, believes she can sparkle at Wimbledon again in two weeks.

A semi-finalist at the age of 15 in 1991 and a quarter-finalist in the two subsequent years, she has decided, for the first time since then, to get in some grass-court practice before the big All-England event, having reached the Australian Open semis in January.

She said: ''I feel I have as good a chance at Wimbledon this year as at any time before. I made a last-minute decision to come over for Birmingham for the first time because there's no practice for grass quite like match practice.''

Veteran French star Nathalie Tauziat, however, also looked a good Wimbledon bet again. The 1998 finalist battered American Erika De Lone in straight sets to cruise into the third round at Birmingham, where she is top seed.

There could also be a new, and more technically accomplished, Anna Kournikova breaking through. Russia's latest blonde bombshell Lina Krasnoroutskaya, just 16 but already the US Open junior champion and last year's junior Wimbledon runner-up, upset French fifth seed Nathalie Dechy 6-3, 6-3 to also reach the last 16.