Graf's aggression v Sanchez Vicario's attrition

The champion's health may decide today's women's final.
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The Independent Online
There was little doubt Steffi Graf was ill yesterday. Her nose was bunged up, her husky voice betrayed the effects of a heavy cold and her forehead was covered in beads of sweat. Most people would have taken the day off. She reached a Wimbledon final.

The German, poised at one set all with Kimiko Date when their women's singles semi-final was suspended on Thursday night, finished off her Japanese opponent 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 in 26 minutes. Any longer, you suspect, and her health would have told against her.

Not that she volunteered any information about her illness, nor did she use it to provide a defence for losing her first set of the tournament. Fresh and prominent in her memory banks is Martina Navratilova's comment that she dreams up injuries to act as excuses should she lose.

"I've got... just sinuses, whatever," she said. "After Martina's comment, I'm not going to say anything more." Given her pallid appearance she did not need to.

Which just proves how long-distance appearances can deceive because there had been no tangible evidence of frailty in the six-times champion as she won the deciding set. Indeed her game seemed to be in vigorously good condition compared to Friday evening when Date's perseverance had clearly got to the six-time champion. He strokes were hurried, her service ailing and she was trying to generate power with the conditions against her.

"I don't think she could have played much better tennis," Graf said of the six successive games that Date took off her as day turned to night. "She played some great shots, very deep and flat. It was difficult to do something." Had she been saved by the dark? "I wonder how much longer she could have kept it up," she replied, dismissing that theory before throwing a crumb to her opponent. "The court was slow, the balls were really heavy and these things were favouring her a little bit. So maybe it would have been more difficult."

Date, the 12th seed, certainly would have preferred to have continued on the Friday. A slow starter at the best of times, having to begin again yesterday gave the advantage to Graf, who rarely fails to seize these opportunities.

The most obvious difference in Graf's play was her serve. On the previous day only 48 per cent of her first serves were finding the target while she announced her renewed accuracy yesterday with an immediate ace. It proved a portent as she surrendered only five points on her five service games.

The air was lighter and the lawns quicker, too, so Graf's groundstrokes were coming faster at Date. The 25-year-old Japanese won virtually every rally that lasted long enough to allow her to dictate the tempo but her opponent's power rarely allowed her this luxury.

The crucial game was the sixth which Date, serving, put in danger with two unforced errors into the net. Give Graf a chance and she usually takes it and at 30-40 she got her break with a blocked backhand that flew at such an angle crosscourt that there was not a hope it would be returned.

With that Graf merely had to serve out the set to ensure a repeat of last year's final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Which gets one out of 10 in terms of a surprise, but no one will complain if today's match emulates the quality of 12 months ago. One of Wimbledon's great matches, it included a turning point of a game that lasted 20 minutes.

Since then Sanchez Vicario has also been on the losing side in another epic, the final of the French Open last month. A trend would appear to be being set although the Spaniard swears she is taking heart from her role as the gallant vanquished. If luck had not deserted her, she argues, Graf would be the one worrying about the immediate past.

Graf had enough problems with Date, who is a chase-and-retrieve clone of Sanchez Vicario, so is aware that dealing with the prototype will not be easy. "Arantxa doesn't really miss," she said. "She doesn't give you easy points. You have to play every single point and that's difficult over a course of two sets. You have to be the aggressor. You can never let up."

If Graf wins today it will be her 100th title and her 20th Grand Slam, the latter total second only to Margaret Court. Fully fit you would expect her to win, the doubt revolves around her health. A sneeze this morning and her chance might be blown away.