Graf in the sun again

Tennis: Sanchez Vicario falls apart in between the showers to hand French crown and world No 1 spot to German
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The Independent Online
A THIRD-SET collapse by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario allowed Steffi Graf to inherit the Spaniard's French title here yesterday in a match that was tense and absorbing for the first hour and half but needed a better climax to rank among the great Grand Slam finals.

Graf won 7-5 4-6 6-0 in a match that lasted five minutes short of two hours to give her a 16th Grand Slam title and her fourth in the French Open. She is now within two Grand Slam titles of the 18 won by both Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and eight short of Margaret Court's 24. Victory also lifted her back above Sanchez as the world No 1 and brought revenge for her defeat in the final here in 1989.

A year of strictly rationed tennis because of a chronic back problem had not been such bad preparation for Graf. Since returning after a six- month absence to win indoors in Paris in February, she had only entered three tournaments in the three months leading up to the French, but had won all those as well.

As it turned out, her game had enough freshness, if still lacking a cutting edge, to come through in a match that did not benefit from two interruptions because of rain. Sanchez is a great fighter, and when she recovered from the loss of the opening set to square the match at one set- all, it looked as if Graf would be stretched to the limit. But it never happened. Sanchez's concentration went during a third set in which she won only six points, and thus it was Graf who was left to hold aloft the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen and begin her victory speech by apologising to the crowd for her lack of French.

It was the 35th time the two women had met, Graf having won 24 of the previous 34 matches and Sanchez eight. But Sanchez had held the upper hand during the last year, winning three of their four matches leading up to this one, including their most recent meeting on clay, in Hamburg in 1994.

Neither woman had enjoyed the smoothest progress to the final. Sanchez had suffered from stomach trouble during earlier rounds and did not get past Kimiko Date in the semi-final without awkward spells at the start of each set.

Graf's semi-final performance in overcoming Conchita Martinez was also less than convincing. Few players have shown more efficiency in finishing off opponents, but here she allowed Martinez back into the match twice - from leading 4-0 in the first set and 4-1 in the second.

Was Graf's steel, after a decade at the top, being blunted? In spite of her unbeaten run in 1995, there was a distinct air of vulnerability about her going into the final, against a battle-hardened opponent sure to try to exploit any weaknesses.

Not that Graf has many. The one area her adversaries are increasingly trying to test is her backhand, where her tendency to get locked into the slice is a problem she has struggled to solve. It was clear from the outset that Sanchez would try to pummel the Graf backhand at every opportunity, and the German's discomfort was quickly apparent.

The first break of serve went to Sanchez to give her a 2-1 lead in the opening set. A terrific counter-attacking forehand that was to be a feature of Sanchez's game had Graf in trouble at 15-30, and a netted forehand followed by a double-fault did the rest. But Sanchez did not enjoy the ascendancy for long. At 3-2 she was broken, and again at 3-4 as Graf, far from error-free but beginning to get her whipped forehand going and move Sanchez around the court, won four games on the trot, serving for the first set at 5-3.

She got to 30-0 before dumping successive backhands into the net, shots which showed she was not nearly in control of the situation as she might have been. The next point was even worse - a dire drop shot which was nowhere near getting over the net. A cross-court backhand winner then brought Sanchez back into contention at 4-5.

Midway through the next game, with Graf again only two points from taking the first set at 15-30, the rain, which had been threatening for 20 minutes or so, forced the players off court. The delay lasted 18 minutes, after which the players returned to a brief period of sunshine - at least as far as Graf was concerned.

Although Sanchez saved a set-point in the resumed game, she got into deeper trouble serving at 5-6, thanks in part to an amazing piece of improvisation by Graf. At 0-15, Sanchez moved to drive a short ball for what looked a certain winner, only for Graf, self-preservation as much in her mind as anything, to volley an unlikely winner. At 15-40 Sanchez netted a backhand to give Graf the first set after 49 minutes.

Graf led 2-0 in the second set before Sanchez had a run of four games in which she displayed a prodigious gift for returning Graf's smashes with interest. At 5-4 she held to 15 to take the second set, at which point she fell apart so comprehensively that the players need hardly have bothered to come off again for rain with Sanchez trailing 0-5 in the third. Play stopped for 42 minutes, and when it started again lasted only four as Graf completed the formalities.