Tennis: Breeze for McGrath

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The Independent Online
ON A DAY when the wind made life difficult even for the seagulls, Meredith McGrath blew hot for long enough to win the Volkswagen Cup here yesterday, beating her fellow American Linda Harvey-Wild 6-2 6-4 in the tournament's first final to feature two unseeded players.

It was not great tennis, although the conditions were to some extent responsible for that. The test for both women lay in not allowing the gusting wind, blowing straight across the court, to unsettle them. But Harvey-Wild never felt comfortable in it, she said, and it was McGrath's ability to control her game the better that proved decisive.

For the 23-year-old McGrath, conqueror of Marti na Navratilova in the quarter- finals, it was a second title in a career threatened two years ago because of a pinched nerve in her hip. In spite of two lengthy absences from the tour, she has returned to hit the sort of form which at Wimbledon could see her improve on her feat of reaching the fourth round last year.

The finalists had a lot in common, both being the same age, 5ft 7in tall, and products of the Midwest. Indeed, it was almost a private battle between McGrath's Michigan and

Harvey-Wild's Illinois, although McGrath's home is now Switzerland. The two had played each other a lot while they were growing up, but on yesterday's evidence it is McGrath who has emerged the cannier player.

Harvey-Wild, who beat Navratilova here in 1992 before losing to Lori McNeil in the final, is a fine shot-maker but not a great one for constructing points. McGrath frequently out-manoeuvred, improvised cleverly, and always had a wider range of shots, not least a reliable volley.

Harvey-Wild's shakiness was apparent from the outset when she lost both her opening service games. And although she broke McGrath in between, she was always struggling to catch up. At 2-5, her frustration at the wind taking the ball when she threw it up was obvious, and her rashness in following up a short first serve at 15-40 was duly punished by a cross-court forehand which gave McGrath the first set.

McGrath then went into a slump, winning only one point in her first two service games of the second set. But you never quite felt that Harvey-Wild was going to get away.

The match reached a climax with Harvey-Wild serving at

4-5. A game of eight deuces and four double faults finally went McGrath's way when, on her fourth match point, she had the better of yet another wind-

affected rally and Harvey-Wild netted a backhand. 'I felt I gave it to her, rather than her winning it,' Harvey-Wild said. That was only part of the story.

The presence in the final of two such lowly ranked players - McGrath was 39 in the world, Harvey-Wild 43 - emphasised just how open the competition is - Steffi Graf apart - going into Wimbledon. Not too much should be read into pre-Wimbledon form but the main upsets of Eastbourne - McGrath's defeat of Navrat ilova and the failure of Mary Pierce to get beyond the second round of the under-21 event - are perhaps not quite the aberrations they appear.

With the sun setting on Navratilova, Graf becalmed though still a long way ahead of the rest of the fleet, and Monica Seles not yet able to face tennis life again, the women's game is crying out for someone new to lay claim to an era, or even just win Wimbledon. The last 12 titles have gone to Navratilova or Graf, and the lack of a consistent challenger is evident in the variety of runners-up there have been in that period.

Women such as Hana Mandlikova (1986 v Navrati lova) and Gabriela Sabatini (1991 v Graf), for whom the problem was adding substance to the style. There was Andrea Jaeger (1983 v Navratilova), a production-line model complete with in-built obsolescence; Zina Garrison Jackson (1990 v Navratilova), who did what quite a few players could and came good for a fortnight. But it remains her only appearance in a Grand Slam final.

More recently there have been Seles (1992 v Graf), the effect of whose continued absence gets worse as it goes on, and Jana Novotna, last year's runner up to Graf, and as graphic an example as you could wish to see of somebody turning away the prize as it was thrust into her hands.

Novotna, in spite of being seeded five, would be the tournament's most likely challenger to Graf were it not for the wrist injury that forced her withdrawal from Eastbourne.

The final, in theory, will be between Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, but there is not a great deal to recommend the Spaniard, winner last month of her second French title but who has never got beyond the

quarter-finals of Wimbledon in seven attempts. The clay of Paris is the highlight of her season, and as usual she has chosen not to play any of the pre-Wimbledon grass-court tournaments.

With Pierce having withdrawn from Wimbledon yesterday, and the credentials of other seeds open to question, this could be the year for a real outsider to come through. If McGrath thinks she is one, she is not saying so. 'I've got a tough opening match,' she said, referring diplomatically to her meeting with Britain's Julie Pullin, ranked 243 in the world.

(Photograph omitted)