Graf's first step on journey back towards summit : TENNIS

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Steffi Graf took her first step towards reclaiming her world No 1 ranking from Arantxa Sanchez Vicario at the French Indoor Open in Paris yesterday when she came safely through her first test after her three-month injury lay-off.

The 25-year-old German, who admitted earlier this week that she will be nursing a serious back problem for the rest of her career, showed no lack of match play as she surged past Elena Makarova, of Russia, 6-2, 6-1.

Graf, who lost her world No 1 ranking to Sanchez Vicario last week, was playing for the first time since she lost to Mary Pierce in the quarter- finals of the Virginia Slims Championships last November. She admitted on Monday that she had decided to postpone an operation to remove a bone growth in her lower back until the end of her career since it would mean that she would be out of tennis for nearly a year and she had no guarantee surgery would be successful. "My back cannot be damaged any more than it is now. It is something I have to live with," she said.

Graf's victory put her into an intriguing quarter-final showdown with Switzerland's 14-year-old, Martina Hingis.

Hingis scored a surprise when she defeated last year's finalist, Julie Halard, of France, 6-4, 6-1.

The Czech-born Swiss player, ranked 68th and playing in only her sixth tournament since turning professional after her 14th birthday last September, performed like a seasoned veteran to tame the moody fifth seed.

She set the stage for her victory by winning a gruelling second game which lasted more than 20 minutes and contained nine deuces, five game points and six break points. And although she then dropped her own serve to trail 2-1, she surged back, testing the French player with powerful service returns and excellent passing shots.

With Halard's confidence in shreds, Hingis surged 2-0 and 4-1 clear in the second set and there was no way back for the world's 18th-ranked player.

In other matches, the sixth seed, Judith Wiesner, of Austria, did things the difficult way against Meike Babel, of Germany. She squandered three match points while leading 5-3 in the second set and then had to go the full distance in a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 victory and a second-round match against Miriam Oremans, of the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Sabine Appelmans, of Belgium, the eighth seed, put out Asa Carlsson, of Sweden, 6-4, 6-2 and the seventh seed, Karina Habsudova, of Slovakia, beat the Dutch qualifier, Stephaine Rottier, 6-1, 6-1.