Graf wins hit and miss show

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The Independent Online


reports from Paris

Steffi Graf will attempt to regain both the French Open title and the world No 1 ranking when she plays Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the defending champion, in the women's singles final here tomorrow.

It is to be hoped that the contest matches the excitement of Graf's semi- final win against Conchita Martinez, the Wimbledon champion, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, yesterday, and that the quality of play achieves a higher level of consistency.

Sanchez Vicario defeated Kimiko Date, 7-5, 6-3, the ninth-seeded Japanese player who displayed impressive tactical awareness but lacked the power to capitalise on a promising start in both sets.

For a time it appeared that Graf was about to toss away the opportunity of renewing her rivalry with Sanchez Vicario. Martinez was allowed to claw her way back into the match after losing the first four games of the opening set and finding herself 3-0 down in the second. Graf failed to convert two game-points for 4-0 and four more for 5-1 and was also broken when serving for the match at 5-4.

After she recovered from 2-4 to 5-5 in the tie-break, she failed to save a set point at 5-6, netting what for her ought to have been a routine forehand approach.

In the final set, having broken to lead 5-3, Graf was tentative on her first match-points, netting a forehand approach on the first and being beaten by a backhand cross-court volley on the second. In between, Martinez created two break-points, being denied by a spectacular smash on the first and directing a forehand over the baseline on the second.

She then netted a forehand to offer Graf a third chance to advance to the final, and made the final error of the match, hitting a backhand over the baseline.

The match, which lasted two hours and 33 minutes, attracted whistles of derision and roars of approval in equal portions, though there were passages when the unforced errors on both sides of the net approached the point of embarrassment.

Graf, who missed the Australian Open in January because of injury, remained unbeaten in 24 matches this year by ending Martinez's sequence of 24 consecutive clay-court wins since hiring the Brazilian coach, Carlos Kirmayr, in March.

The Spaniard, whose form had been so impressive in taking her to four consecutive titles en route to Paris, appeared to be dazzled by Graf's brilliance in the opening four games. It may have reminded her that she had won only one of their 11 matches.

A sloppy service game by Graf encouraged Martinez, but her disappointment at not making the first set closer seemed to carry over into her play at the start of the second set. She may have achieved more by attacking Graf's serve instead of moving so far behind the baseline that she almost backed her way into the Avenue Gordon Bennett.

Both players took consolation from the way they fought back when the match was running away from them, but while Graf is able to turn her mind to an immediate challenge, Martinez is left to rue her mistakes while preparing to defend the Wimbledon title in 18 days' time. "I'm going to Barcelona next and will take it easy for a while," she said. "I'll go to England to practise on the grass one week before Wimbledon."

Date, having advanced to her second Grand Slam semi-final, troubled Sanchez Vicario with her placement of the ball deep into the corners of the court, but was unable to deliver winning shots on the crucial points.

Typical of this was her inability to close out a lengthy rally at deuce in the sixth game of the second set, after breaking her opponent to lead 3-2. "I wanted to get one more point, and that was the same for Arantxa," she said. "I may have looked out of breath, but that was not only because of that one point."

Sanchez Vicario, who has defeated Date seven times out of eight - losing their first meeting, on an indoor court in 1992 - has had a stomach virus since arriving in Paris. "I am happy with my condition," she said. She is also pleased to be playing Graf in the final. "It will be nice, because there is a lot of competition between us to be No 1," she said.