Hingis shows Graf the future

Tennis: Wimbledon
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The Independent Online
TREVOR HAYLETT

They offer contrasting images at opposite ends of the Wimbledon age range. One was a gutsy winner yesterday; the other lost with grace and a promise of victorious afternoons to come. In their different ways, Jo Durie and Martina Hingis both excited and entertained the throng who established a record attendance for the first Tuesday of the All England Championships.

Now 34 and performing here for the final time, Durie can remember long distant days when she was, still, the senior partner and Steffi Graf the precocious challenger. Graf was then 15, beaten in the fourth round in 1984 by the best of British who had only four players above her in the world hierarchy.

Yesterday it was the great German's turn to welcome Hingis, a year younger at a so-sweet 14, into the glare of the Centre Court theatre for her first appearance in the main competition. She knows her way around, having won Junior Wimbledon last year, but this was the Big League.

On to the most celebrated strip of grass strode Graf, business-like and with determination bursting out of every pore. Behind her, equipped with a smile and a jaunty stride proclaiming that this was just her kind of place, bounced the youngster from Switzerland.

Slender and with a ponytail to match, Hingis put you in mind of the younger Graf. Not only in looks and comportment but in the cool manner of her game. Disarmingly composed and collected, she revealed no trace of nerves. What she did reveal was a willingness to trade baseline blows with the arch-pugilist from the back courts.

Hingis won the first three points of the match. How the audience loved that. She was broken in her next service game but immediately retrieved the deficit. It smacked of "anything you can do" but Graf, as she was always going to, then assumed control, completing her win in 50 minutes.

She was found out here 12 months ago when her fifth defence of the Wimbledon crown came to grief in the very first round against Lori McNeil. She was not about to go that way again, certainly not to a young pretender barely into her teens.

The No 1 seed and overwhelming favourite to reign again triumphed 6-3, 6-1, but it was never as easy as the statistics look. Graf was inconvenienced at the moment she was called for the match, appearing late on court, and several times during it. There were enough flashing winners and errors enticed by the secure and accurate arm of her young opponent to keep her thinking.

Afterwards she was asked about the condition of her back which has forced her to miss much of the tour. In the final game, she executed a stretch on court which drew the query that it was still troubling her. Later, she denied it, saying she "felt all right" but, significantly, late last night she withdrew from the doubles, in which she was due to partner Martina Navratilova.

Once more Durie is confounding expectations. According to common lore she should, this morning, have been a former Wimbledon competitor and an ex-player for everywhere else besides. The obituaries signalling the end of a courageously prolonged and spirited career were ready for release. So what happens? Jo goes out and wins for the first time at the All England Championships in four years.

The veteran campaigner from Bristol, the oldest racket-swinger in either singles draw, provoked a heavy measure of national pride and nostalgia on Court Two with a characteristically gutsy display to dispose of her French opponent, Alexia Dechaume-Ballaret. And all on knees that have withstood the pain and pressure of no less than four operations.

Wonky or not, the equipment helped the 34-year-old Durie to a 6-2, 7- 6 victory to earn a place in the second round for the first time since 1991. Not since 1987 has she ventured past that stage, and it would be an even greater achievement to defy both time and doctors' orders to add to her opening success, especially as next up is the fourth seed, Jana Novotna.

However, her toughest opponent remains the surgeon who has bullied her out to grass (the retirement kind). "He says I can keep having the operation on my left knee [there have been three] but eventually there will be no kneecap left," said the girl who was once ranked fifth in the world but has now slipped to eighth on the British ladder.

"I don't really relish the thought of that, and the last time he really laid into me, saying that I had to promise I would stop after this year and he'd rather I stopped after Wimbledon. So I have had to go with what he says."

She was desperate to give it one last big shot this Wimbledon, not least because it would help her mother in her own battle against serious illness. "She's fighting and I'm happy that she was able to see my last Wimbledon."

And it is definitely to be the last. There is no going back - a successful Wimbledon or not.

Conchita Martinez returned to the Centre Court, where she was last seen holding aloft the victor's plate. She was barely tested as she brushed aside Asa Carlsson, 6-1, 6-1 in only 49 minutes, but she knows many more severe examinations lie ahead.

Durie's example could not be matched by Clare Wood, the Brighton girl who has succeeded her as Britain's No 1. She lost 6-2, 6-3 against another representative from France, Isabelle Demongeot. Karen Cross and Megan Miller also crashed out. Later, Lizzie Jelfs and Shirli-Ann Siddall ensured that Durie would have to fly the flag alone.

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