Tennis: Aura of Graf keeps Smith on back foot

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SOMEONE BEARING a strong resemblance to Steffi Graf won in straight sets at the Direct Line Insurance Championships yesterday, moving athletically about the Centre Court to slice wickedly low backhands and drive unstoppable forehands. "I think I'm on schedule," the seven-times Wimbledon champion said.

Graf's second-round opponent, Sam Smith, ranked No 1 in Britain and No 112 in the world, was left in no doubt. "She's a formidable sight down the other end of the court," Smith said, having caught her breath after her first experience of competing against the 29-year-old German had ended in defeat, 6-1, 6-2.

Try though she did for the 56 minutes of the match, Smith was unable to clear her mind of her opponent's identity. When she came close, Graf would remind her with a punishing efficiency. "The holes in your game become so much more obvious," Smith said.

Without overestimating the significance of yesterday's result, it was impossible not to be impressed by Graf's fitness. Dispensing with the support she had been wearing on her left knee, she moved so freely that observers had to remind themselves that here before them was the same player who only weeks ago had spoken of the possibility of being forced to retire.

Making light of a tricky wind, Graf allowed herself a smile of satisfaction at the quality of some of her shots. "In the conditions, I don't think I could have played much better," Graf said.

Last week in Birmingham, where the DFS Classic was ruined by rain, was just a frustrating memory. "I feel as if I've only just started playing on grass again," Graf said yesterday. "I'm practising well and moving well. I enjoyed myself very much out there. I hit a couple of pretty good shots. My forehand worked well, and I didn't make too many mistakes on the baseline. I'm having a good time.''

Graf has even taken a peek at the Wimbledon draw, which brings an opening match against Gala Leon Garcia, of Spain, ranked No 48, and projects a meeting with Mary Pierce in the last 16 and Monica Seles in the quarter- finals. "I'm not a person who likes to look far ahead, but it's a good draw," Graf said. "You never know...''

Smith made the valid point that she does not often get to play top players and that it might be wise to judge Graf's form against opponents who may not be intimidated by her name.

In the quarter-finals today, Graf is due to play the 17-year-old Russian prodigy Anna Kournikova for the first time on grass, having beaten her 6-2, 6-1 in the fourth round at the 1996 US Open. Continued success would pit Graf against her old rival Arantxa Sanchez Vicario or the 16-year- American Serena Williams.

Venus Williams turned 18 yesterday and also turned in one of her most disappointing performances, in losing to the experienced Natasha Zvereva, 6-2, 6-1. Unable to keep the ball in court, and neglecting to use her potential for volleying, Williams, seeded No 7 for Wimbledon, said she would have to practise harder and practise more seriously, "as if I'm playing a match''.

Venus did not celebrate her birthday because she is a Jehovah's Witness.