McNeil made to sweat

Warming up for Wimbledon: The woman who tamed Graf serves another warning as rain spoils the parade at Queen's
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GAINING grass-court practice before Wimbledon is as much a priority for the women players as it is for the men, and despite the wild unpredictability of the English weather - the other key factor at Wimbledon - four players in the category "dangerous underdogs" were able to fulfil that aim in the semi-finals of the DFS Classic here yesterday.

Foremost among them was the 31-year-old American Lori McNeil who has won this tournament - a warm-up in both senses yesterday - two years running and duly battled through to the final again after meeting stiff resistance from the 26-year-old South African, Elna Reinach, before winning 6-4, 6-4.

McNeil used last year's victory as a springboard for a remarkable effort at Wimbledon, in which she beat the reigning champion, Steffi Graf, in the first round and then progressed all the way to the semi-finals, where she lost out 10-8 in the third set to the eventual champion, Conchita Martinez of Spain.

McNeil's form was not quite as convincing yesterday, but the overnight storms and then a further downpour had caused first a delayed start and then a one-hour interruption after just one-and-a-half games. In that brief prelude, though, Reinach demonstrated some of her own capacity to create a surprise.

The South African is a tall woman, just under 6ft, and her reach and her ability to stretch for McNeil's attempted passing shots caused the American endless problems. Indeed, Reinach took a 2-0 lead after the resumption and threatened further disruption as the tempo of the game increased in what was now, bizarrely, hot summer sunshine.

Reinach's double-fisted backhand, whether deployed as a service return or as a volley at the net, proved to be the South African's most potent weapon as she held off McNeil's resurgence. But the American's heavier serve - despite being erratic - and better movement around the court broke Reinach's initial resistance, and McNeil duly took the first set.

But McNeil's vulnerable first serve - "that's the big thing I need to work on," she said after the game - let Reinach back in for another two- game lead. The South African then began to give up her own service breaks as McNeil drew back to three games all.

"The more I pressed her, the better she played," McNeil observed, reflecting on Reinach's ability to produce dazzling passing shots, particularly on the backhand side, "but then I decided to settle down and not to force it too much, to take a little of the pace off her game."

The tactic worked perfectly as Reinach's forehand returns began to let her down badly, and though she continued to press McNeil all the way, the American took the second set by the same margin as the first for her third successive place in the Edgbaston final. "I don't think I'm playing as well as I was at this stage last year," McNeil concluded, "but tomorrow's final and then Eastbourne will put more of an edge on my game."

In the second semi-final, the 1990 Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison Jackson simply powered her way past the young Belgian Els Callens (and a late return of the drizzle) by 6-2 6-1, to set up a repeat of last year's DFS Classic final against her compatriot McNeil. Rain permitting, it should be quite a match.

"I thought I played pretty well," Garrison Jackson said after her win. "That girl's a pretty gifted player."

When she was asked if the disruptions caused by the weather had ruined her preparations in any way, Garrison Jackson smiled: "I didn't take any lunch because I was hoping to stick to the original schedule, so by the time I got out on court, I was feeling so hungry!" As regards today's final, she said she regarded the repeat contest as "just another stepping- stone" towards Wimbledon.

Indeed, despite the freakish weather, both games reinforced the attractions on the women's side of the sport, which is still based around such lost arts as placement, rallies, movement and tactics.

What a contrast with the biff-bang of the power game on the men's side.

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