Graf has her break cut short

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Steffi Graf still considers her "little holiday" from tax problems in Germany to have been worthwhile, even though it turned into an away-day. The Wimbledon champion's lack of match practice since winning the United States Open six weeks ago was cruelly exposed in her opening match at the Brighton international tournament when she was overwhelmed by the power and confidence of Mariaan de Swardt, a hefty South African qualifier, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1.

It was only the second defeat of the year for Graf, the other, in Toronto in August, also having been inflicted by a South African, the diminutive Amanda Coetzer, who, by coincidence, was playing on an adjacent court when the drama unfolded yesterday.

De Swardt, No 54 in the world, is the lowest ranked player to defeat Graf since she lost to Britain's Jo Durie (No 52) at Brighton in 1985 - the last occasion Graf was beaten in the tournament.

A winner of the title six times, Graf expressed disappointment at being eliminated so early when the event is about to come to a close after 18 years. So, too, did Jana Novotna, the second seed and winner of the event for the past two years, who was unable to combat the effects of a virus and the attacking style of a Dutch opponent, Miriam Oremans, who won, 6-4, 6-0.

Graf, who was denied the opportunity to find her rhythm after taking a break from tournaments to rest her ailing back, offered no excuses and gave de Swardt the highest praise: "For the first one and a half sets, it was the best that a woman has ever played against me." Did that include Monica Seles, Graf's last opponent, with whom she shares the world No 1 ranking? "For the first one and a half sets, yes.''

During that magical period, the 24-year-old from Johannesburg gave an almost flawless display of fierce, accurate stroke play and attacking flair. "Whatever I hit went in," she marvelled. Until that is, she had a break point to lead 4-0 in the second set. Graf saved it with a trademark forehand, and produced another to revive her prospects by breaking de Swardt in the next game.

Having levelled the match, Graf appeared about to take control when de Swardt missed a volley to present her with a break point in the opening game of the final set. It was then that the South African conjured a stroke of boldness rarely seen from Graf's opponents, rescuing the situation with an ace off a second serve.

The match swiftly drifted away from Graf after she twice double-faulted and then steered a forehand over the baseline to offer de Swardt the chance to break in the second game. The South African converted with a low backhand volley, and swept into a 5-0 lead before Graf could respond to avoid a whitewash.

While the potency of de Swardt's performance surprised Graf, she had anticipating a difficult encounter, remembering her only previous match against the South African at Wimbledon in 1992, the German winning 7-5 in the third set.

Graf emphasised that she was as healthy as possible for someone with a chronic back injury, and said her form had not been affected by the troubles back home, where her father is in prison, accused of evading tax on her earnings. "The only problem was on the court today," she said.

De Swardt, in her moment of triumph, expressed sympathy for Graf. "I feel really bad for her," she said. "I don't know if I could play tennis if that was going on with me. I respect her for trying to play and felt very sorry for what she's going through.''

Graf intends to go directly to the United States to prepare for a tournament in Philadelphia on 6 November, ahead of the WTA Tour Championships in New York on 13 November.

Although in need of as much match play as possible, she will resist joining Seles in the Oakland event of 30 October. "That would mean playing two tournaments in a row, and I can't do that any more," Graf said. It was the saddest comment of the day.