Graf back in old routine

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The Independent Online

Steffi Graf's return to the circuit at last week's Paris Open was never going to be a simple resumption of duties. And come to that, why should the German want to pick up where she left off, when her last match was a defeat at the hands of Mary Pierce at the Virginia Slims Championships, and her previous tournament saw her finish a half-crippled loser in the US Open final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario?

Given her difficult circumstances, the Paris Open, which she won yesterday against Pierce, looked closer to an attempted comeback.

During Graf's absence, things have been happening behind the German's injured back: Martina Hingis, a 14-year-old Swiss with sweet-spot timing was hailed as tennis's latest prodigy, Pierce won her first major title at the Australian Open, and Sanchez Vicario took over the world No 1 ranking.

In one fell swoop, and after arriving in Paris last Tuesday still questioning her readiness for tournament play, Graf delivered her own categorical answers and bludgeoning rejoinders to most of the doubts and every challenger in sight.

She dismissed Hingis in the quarter-finals, and lost a total of only 17 games all week. In yesterday's final, she looked her old fleet-footed, beautifully balanced athletic self in beating Pierce 6-2, 6-2 in 68 minutes to capture the 87th title of her career. She has won many more valuable and prestigious victories in her time, but few more crucial than this one, and has now supplanted Sanchez Vicario at No 1 after the Spaniard had held her position of theoretical superiority for precisely two weeks.

Not so much a Spanish reign as a Barcelona blip.

Throughout yesterday's final, Graf's face retained her usual solemn expression of extreme concentration, but her tennis was joyously positive. She got off to a flying start at three love and was never caught. Her service - she rattled down 10 aces - was never threatened, and Pierce contrived only one break point in two sets.

The Frenchwoman rightly refused to get into a straight baseline brawl, teasing Graf's backhand with short angled high bounces, mixing things up as much as Graf's driving attacks allowed. Unfortunately, Pierce had neither the speed nor the range of shot to pose any consistent question.

After Graf opened up the second set by whacking in three aces in one game, the Frenchwoman went into mental purdah on the changeover, towel wrapped around her fevered brow. When she surfaced she still had not come up with any solutions. Graf was swifter, more precise in her placements, and carried the heavier serve. It was all too much for Pierce, but then it has been too much for most players over the past 10 years.

"I've won and I've beaten two top five players and played some great tennis," Graf said. "I really didn't expect that to happen. I enjoyed things so much this week. This is what I've been waiting for and training for for months."

For such a hyperactive person and eager competitor, time must have weighed on her. Her days were certainly long. Between physical conditioning, medical treatment and work-outs, Graf was on the go for 12 hours a day. Now she is back into the tournament - and victory - routine, her professional duties only take up a normal seven or eight hours. "This," she said "is almost like a holiday." Her rivals will be feeling exactly the opposite.

Graf put on almost half a stone during her absence, and on her doctor's advice now takes care, for the first time in her career, about diet. But her tennis appetite is back. And the only question remaining is how long her chronically injured back will now resist.

"Today Steffi was Steffi," the beaten Pierce said after the final. She was right. Tomorrow, of course, is another day.

n Yevgeny Kafelnikov, of Russia, beat the German, Boris Becker, 7-5, 5-7, 7-6 to win the Muratti Time Indoor tournament in Milan yesterday.