Strain tells on struggling Graf

US OPEN: Women's top seed squeezes through while Andre Agassi's defence of the men's title receives boost
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The Independent Online

While Monica Seles, relieved of the 28 months of doubt and depression which followed her stabbing, continues to romp through her comeback matches, Steffi Graf, troubled on and off the court, clings tenuously to her position at the top of the women's game.

Though Seles is the player who speaks of experiencing nerves each time she walks out to play, Graf is the one displaying them. Either that, or the Wimbledon champion has so much else on her mind that her game is being left to take care of itself. Her father/manager, Peter, is under arrest following an investigation by the German tax authorities.

The morning after Seles had revelled in her first match in a Gram Slam championship for two and a half years, sweeping aside the Romanian Ruxandra Dragomir, 6-3, 6-1, in the opening round of the United States Open, Graf struggled to stay in the tournament.

It did not help that she had to face Amanda Coetzer, the only player to have beaten her this year, only a fortnight earlier in the first round of the Canadian Open. Seles marked her return by winning that tournament without dropping a set.

For an hour yesterday it seemed that Coetzer would repeat her success and that Graf would become the first top seed to lose in the first round of the women's singles. Graf recovered to win, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4, raising her game to coincide with her South African opponent's loss of nerve.

Coetzer was forced into the first set tie-break after leading 5-2, failing to convert seven set points. She then hit a glorious angled backhand volley to take the opening point of the shoot-out and capitalised on Graf's errors to win it, 7-1, on her ninth set point.

Though the game then began to slip away from the South African, Graf lapsed into errors again when two points from victory, serving at 5-1, 30-15. Coetzer broke twice, only to lose her own serve in the concluding game.

"At certain times I had difficulty concentrating," Graf said. "I haven't really played many matches because of my back and I definitely lack confidence." So Coetzer has noticed. "I feel she definitely does give you a chance to get into the game compared to previous times," she said. In previous times, Graf defeated the South African six times in a row.

Andre Agassi and his chief rival Pete Sampras made an emphatic start to the men's singles. Agassi began the defence of the title with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 win against an American compatriot, Bryan Shelton. Sampras defeated Fernando Meligeni, of Brazil, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4.

Goran Ivanisevic has hobbled out of Agassi's half of the draw, where he was projected to play Boris Becker in the quarter-finals. The Croatian sixth seed, who had not progressed beyond the fourth round in six previous visits, sprained his left ankle when within three games of defeating the New Zealander Brett Steven in straight sets. The injury caused the sixth seed to retire at 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 1-3.

Britain's representation in singles was reduced to one, Oxford's Tim Henman, when Greg Rusedski joined Jeremy Bates and Mark Petchey among the first-round losers. Rusedski made a dismal exit, being defeated 7- 6, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 by Joost Winnink, a 24-year-old Dutch qualifier, ranked No 222.

Rusedski's groundstrokes provided flimsy support for his attacking game, and he was particularly worried about an erratic backhand. A stomach bug did not help Rusedski's cause, though his opponent was suffering similar problems.

Jeff Tarango, who is appealing against fines of pounds 42,000, was able to contribute only pounds 6,000 to his fighting fund after losing in the first round to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian seventh seed, 6-0, 6-4, 7-5.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 23