Graf up to speed

Stan Hey sees the top seed assert her authority in an easy victory
EARLY on Saturday morning, BBC2 had shown the French film Claire's Knee, which served as an apt prelude to that other continental enigma "Steffi's Back". Such is the speculation over the injury that Graf is supposed to be nursing that it was expected that all those St John Ambulance people, relieved of sunburn control by yesterday's cooler, cloudier conditions, would ring Court One ready to help.

Fortunately, Graf needed no medical assistance whatsoever as she quickly set out to remove Kristie Boogert, of Holland, from her path. The first set, which Graf won with contemptuous ease 6-1, lasted only 19 minutes, which included any time spent consuming barley water or bananas. There was a symbolic end to the set too, with Graf bending her back to whiplash in a booming ace for the final point. It was more telling than any other medical bulletin.

Bizarrely, after taking a 5-0 lead in the second set, Graf found Boogert with two points for a break in the last game. Faced with the irritation of staying on court for a further game, Graf overwhelmed the deficit to run out a 6-1 6-0 winner.

Short of a sudden doctor's note, she looked destined to reclaim her rightful place in the final next Saturday, after last year's embarrassing first- round defeat by the American Lori McNeil.

After the match, Graf said she "hadn't expected the match to be over so quickly, but it's nice that it happened. It's the best that I've played so far." When the inevitable question arrived about whether her back had given her trouble, she smiled enigmatically - "What did it look like?"

Graf's biggest obstacle to reclaiming her throne will be in the quarter- finals, if she comes up against the 6ft 2in, 12st Californian Lindsay Davenport. The seventh seed clambered into the last 16 yesterday with a hard-fought two-sets-to-one victory over Germany's Christina Singer.

Singer took the first set on a tie-break, 10-8. Her resistance continued until the middle of the second set, when Davenport won a seven-game streak to take the second set 6-3, and establish a platform for her victory in the third, 6-2.

But Davenport, who admitted afterwards: "I'm never gonna be a Steffi Graf in terms of body shape, but I can get faster," will need an altogether sharper performance against her next opponent, Mary Joe Fernandez, who cruised past Miriam Oremans, 6-1 6-2. Davenport's main problem is that Fernandez also happens to be her best friend on the Tour.

"We just spent two weeks in Miami practising together, so I guess we know what each other's planning." Davenport, who possesses a fierce array of ground strokes, nevertheless showed her vulnerability to a more athletic all-court opponent, with Singer using the drop shot to good effect.

Elsewhere in the upper half of the women's draw, there were straightforward victories for the promising South African Mariaan de Swardt, who reduced the Japanese contingent by defeating Yone Kamio, 6-4 6-4, and for the Australian Nicole Bradtke, the 6-2 6-1 conqueror of Anjelica Gavaldon of Mexico.

However, the sixth seed, Kimiko Date, kept the flag flying for Japan when she came from one set down to defeat the American Tami Whitlinger- Jones, 1-6 6-3 6-3.

The 10th seed, Natasha Zvereva, fared less well. After taking the first set 6-2 against the 22-year-old Argentinian with the 100-point Scrabble name, Ines Gorrochategui, she conceded the next two sets, 6-4 6-4. The young Argentinian will now play Graf in the fourth round, giving the umpires a few days' practice to get their lips round her syllables.

But the one seed who was expected to find trouble because of her track record of "choking", Jana Novotna, came through in straight sets, 7-5 6-4, against Austria's Judith Wiesner. Even so, Novotna needed Wiesner to blow five first-set points before getting her game on track.

"Nerve-otna" now meets Bradtke, hoping she has put her butterflies behind her. But the big news of the day - apart from Tarango's tantrums - is that Graf is emphatically back to her best.

The last 16 offers a line-up retaining nine of the original seeds, a considerably stronger field than looked likely at one point. Indeed, the spread of nations represented - two Germans, two Spanish, two Dutch, three Americans, two Argentinians, a Japanese, a South African, a Czech, an Australian, and an Indonesian - is a fair indication of the growth and strength of the women's game.