Graf prepares to reclaim her crown

John Roberts anticipates an enthralling contest in today's ladies' singles final
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Despite the constant criticism of the ladies of the court, the women's singles final has proved to be the showpiece of the championships for the past two years. Jana Novotna's dramatic collapse in 1993 was followed by Martina Navratilova's emotional farewell a year ago.

In the background on both occasions were haunting thoughts concerning Monica Seles: when - or if - would the former world No 1 be able to resume her remarkable career after being stabbed on a court in Hamburg in April 1993?

Today's final between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was preceded by word that Seles intends to compete in Los Angeles on 7 August in preparation for the US Open later in the month. How ironic and sad it would be if Seles's return coincided with Graf's departure.

There would be no reason to speculate on that possibility were it not for the doubts which have arisen since confirmation that Graf's chronic injury to her lower back threatens the longevity of her career. What it amounts to is that Graf is prepared to cope with the daily routine of exercising, training and practising, plus the odd spasm, so long as she still enjoys playing.

Tennis has been Graf's life ever since she was a child, and she has been pounding the professional courts for the past 13 years. After her spectacular early successes, she said she could not imagine competing beyond the age of 25. Already a year past that, she has discovered, in common with many great athletes before, that there is no substitute for doing what you do best.

It is easy to suggest from the sidelines that great champions should quit while they are still at the top, which is why there is a degree of speculation that Graf will consider retirement if she wins the Wimbledon title for a sixth time today.

Victory would advance her collection of Grand Slam singles titles to 17, only one less than Navratilova's total, completed at the age of 33. Graf, although not the type to concern herself with numbers, may take the view that there is still much left to do. She may also relish the prospect of renewing her rivalry with Seles, having been asked so often if victories have been empty in the former Yugoslav's absence.

All of which suggests that Sanchez Vicario is to be allowed only a walk on, walk off part this afternoon, which is rather disrespectful to the world No 2, who is making her debut in a Wimbledon final.

Graf had anticipated that her main threat would emanate from Spain, but it was Conchita Martinez she expected to be facing her across the net today. The defending champion, Graf contended, had more variety in her game than the others. But that did not prove to be the case on Thursday, when blistered feet made it difficult for Martinez to tether her scurrying compatriot.

So Graf meets a familiar foe of 33 contests, having defeated the Barcelona retriever in straight sets in the quarter-finals on their only previous Wimbledon encounter, in 1989.

The German is unbeaten in 31 matches this year, and has lost only three sets; the latest against Novotna in the semi-finals on Thursday, when for a time it seemed possible that the Czech would cause an upset.

Having negotiated that, Graf is strongly fancied to make amends for that wet Tuesday last year when she lost to Lori McNeil, creating history as the first defending women's singles champion to lose in the opening round.

McNeil and Novotna have a serve-volley style tailored to trouble Graf on the faster surfaces. Sanchez Vicario is noted for blocking hundreds of shots and profiting from opponents' errors. This tends to work best on slow clay or medium-paced concrete, surfaces on which she has troubled Graf in the past.

During the past fortnight, however, Sanchez Vicario has developed an enthusiasm for the lawns, inspired, perhaps, by Martinez's victory last year. She was obviously delighted to reach the final, and may not be subjected to the customary attack of nerves of the occasion. Moreover, she could hardly fare much worse than the muted Seles, who lost to Graf in the 1992 final, 6-2, 6-1.

After beating Graf to win the French Open for the first time six years ago, Sanchez Vicario bought a pair of Yorkshire terriers and named them Roland and Garros after the stadium in Paris. It is difficult to imagine her shouting, "Get out of there, Wimble! Don't you dare do that, Don!"


Graf leads head-to-head meetings 25-8

Date Event Surface Round Result

1988 United Jersey Hard Last 16 Graf 6-2 6-0

1989 Fam Circ Mag Cup Clay SF Graf 6-2 6-4

1989 Bausch and Lomb Clay SF Graf 6-3 6-2

1989 French Open Clay F Sanchez Vicario 7-6 3-6 7-5

1989 Wimbledon Grass QF Graf 7-5 6-1

1990 Pan Pacific Carpet F Graf 6-1 6-2

1990 Bausch and Lomb Clay F Graf 6-1 6-0

1990 Citizen Cup Clay F Graf 5-7 6-0 6-1

1990 US Open Hard SF Graf 6-1 6-2

1990 Leipzig Carpet F Graf 6-1 6-1

1991 Lufthansa Cup Clay F Graf 6-3 4-6 7-6

1991 French Open Clay SF Sanchez Vicario 6-0 6-2

1992 Bausch and Lomb Clay SF Graf 6-7 6-4 6-3

1992 Citizen Cup Clay F Graf 7-6 6-2

1992 Lufthansa Cup Clay F Graf 4-6 7-5 6-2

1992 French Open Clay SF Graf 0-6 6-2 6-2

1992 Federation Cup Clay Graf 6-4 6-2

1992 US Open Hard QF Sanchez Vicario 7-6 6-3

1992 Philadelphia Carpet F Graf 6-3 3-6 6-1

1993 Australian Open Hard SF Graf 7-5 6-4

1993 Florida Hard F Graf 6-4 6-3

1993 Lipton Hard F Sanchez Vicario 6-4 3-6 6-3

1993 Fam Circ Mag Cup Clay F Graf 7-6 6-1

1993 Citizen Cup Clay F Sanchez Vicario 6-3 6-3

1993 San Diego Hard F Graf 6-4 4-6 6-1

1993 Virginia Slims Carpet F Graf 6-1 6-4 3-6 6-1

1994 Australian Open Hard F Graf 6-0 6-2

1994 Delray Hard F Graf 6-3 7-5

1994 Hamburg Clay F Sanchez Vicario 4-6 7-6 7-6

1994 San Diego Hard F Graf 6-2 6-1

1994 Canadian Open Hard F Sanchez Vicario 7-5 1-6 7-6

1994 US Open Hard F Sanchez Vicario 1-6 7-6 6-4

1995 French Open Clay F Graf 7-5 4-6 6-0