Tennis: Brittle Graf still too strong for Fernandez

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The Independent Online
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ, who had lived dangerously for most of the French Open, yesterday found herself at last in a situation she could not retrieve. Playing Steffi Graf, a woman she had never beaten, she lost the final

4-6, 6-2, 6-4. Perhaps it was a mistake to start so well.

The American, who trailed 6-2, 5-3 to Brenda Schultz in the fourth round and 6-1, 5-1 to Gabriela Sabatini in the quarter- finals, could not confound expectation for a third time. Graf won in 2hr 30min, collecting her third French Open title, pounds 219,000 and her 12th Grand Slam, while providing the perfect platform for an attempt at her third successive Wimbledon championship.

Fernandez said: 'Steffi proved today why she is a great champion by coming back from being behind. I had my chances but couldn't take them.'

The result also emphasised how much Graf and Monica Seles have dominated the game over the last five years. This was the 24th time at least one of them has appeared in the 25 Grand Slam finals since the French Open of 1987 and also the 20th time the Graf/Seles axis has been successful. Only Martina Navratilova (three times), Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Gabriela Sabatini have broken the sequence. The status quo, even with Seles' absence, appears to be rock solid.

The more so as Graf was far from her best. Her serve, normally so intimidating, was as much miss as hit and her forehand was brittle. She compiled 23 unforced errors on that wing, her supposed tour de force. 'I did not play well,' she said. 'I felt nervous at the start. It was a Grand Slam, I'd never lost to her and I tried to rush things.'

Graf was also in a hurry afterwards, so much so that she forgot a speech to Seles, still recovering from the knife attack five weeks ago, she had planned to give, win or lose. 'I wanted to say we all hope she is going to be back. That we all miss her.'

Fernandez, 21, had put the emphasis on attack before the match, saying she would need to be aggressive if she wanted to compete. Her coach, Harold Solomon, had told her bluntly that she would never get above seventh or eighth in the world unless she came out of her defensive shell. 'He just drilled it in my head,' she said.

Certainly Fernandez, the fifth seed, began the match by stamping her personality on it. A Chris Evert-influenced player with a double-handed backhand, she broke Graf to 15 in the opening game and although she also lost her opening service game she retaliated with another break to love in the fifth. The set was won in 48 minutes, the American converting her fourth set point.

Graf had not lost to Fernandez in 10 meetings and she needed to underline that fact. She fired two aces in the first three serves of the second set, but still needed seven minutes to win the game. Yet such punishing exchanges were likely to have a physical effect.

Having lost her service in the sixth game, which went to eight deuces, and the next to love, she had to retire briefly to the locker room complaining of dehydration and a headache.

'The long game took a lot out of me,' she said. 'We both fought hard for it and if I'd won it maybe I would have got a second win straight away.' Instead she received an aspirin and two later visits on court from the WTA doctor.

Graf levelled the match but could not carry the momentum into the third set, the balance of which swung from one side of the net to the other. Fernandez was

2-0 and a break up at 4-3 but could not quite escape the German's formidable grip.

An over-hit forehand from Fernandez gave Graf a 5-4 lead and three further errors allowed the Wimbledon champion three match points. Two were saved but the third proved a comeback too far. With most of the court at her mercy the American hit a forehand low into the net.

It was a tired shot from a very tired loser.