Graf maintains grip on Novotna

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STEFFI GRAF, returning from a back problem which she expects to carry permanently, cruised to her most impressive victory since September, a 6-3 6-2 semi-final win over Jana Novotna in the Paris Open yesterday.

Graf, of Germany, lost her No 1 ranking to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, of Spain, while missing action for three months through back injuries. She could regain the top position with a victory in this tournament. If she succeeds, it would be her first title since winning an event in San Diego last July.

Against Novotna, ranked fifth in the world, Graf was not as sharp as she was in beating the 14-year-old Martina Hingis, of Switzerland, on Thursday.

In the eighth game, two double faults by Novotna helped Graf make a key break. Still it was not that easy for Graf. She wasted two set points with consecutive forehand errors before finally ending the 48-minute first set with a backhand volley and a good service that Novotna netted.

In the second set, the players went on serve until the fifth game when Novotna gave Graf a break point with a forehand wide. Graf took advantage of it when Novotna hit a half-volley into the net to make it 3-2 for Graf.

Graf had two aces in the next game to increase her lead to 4-2. Novotna dropped her service again in the next game with Graf taking advantage of a second serve to rip a return winner at break point.

Graf served out the next game at love, concluding the match in 84 minutes with a service winner.

Graf now has a 22-3 record over Novotna. Their most memorable contest came in the 1993 Wimbledon final when Graf was trailing 4-1 in the third set and came back to take the title.

Because of recurring back and calf injuries, Graf has played just five matches since losing to Sanchez Vicario in the United States Open in September - two in the year- ending Virginia Slims tournament in November and three so far in this tournament.