Tennis: Careless Graf mirrors Becker's torment

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The Independent Online
THE DOLLAR has improved against the mark here at the United States Open, where not a single German remains to compete for the major prizes. Steffi Graf, the Wimbledon champion, was eliminated yesterday, joining her compatriots Boris Becker and Michael Stich on the sidelines.

Graf, seeded to meet Monica Seles in Saturday's final, made too many errors against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to keep the appointment. The bouncy Spaniard won their quarter-final 7-6, 6-3, a result which guaranteed that Seles would remain No 1 in the world.

Though disappointed that Graf and Seles would not be continuing their rivalry, the crowd could see that the German was not on top of her game when she double-faulted to lose a 4-3 lead in the tie-break. 'It was a bad point to play at that time,' Graf said. It was also only one of 49 unforced errors - some of the most crucial with the forehand - and the fifth-seeded Sanchez Vicario is not a player to greet with gifts.

The Spaniard, who defeated Graf in the semi-finals of last year's French Open (6-0, 6-2), subsequently lost their next five matches. She now considers her play to be more 'aggressive', which may account for her habit of calling lines ahead of the judge and performing a tap-dance when waiting to receive serve. Not that Graf needed anybody to put her off, as she demonstrated by twice double-faulting when broken for 5-3 in the second set.

Sanchez Vicario is now being coached by Mervyn Rose, the Australian left-hander who won the Australian and French singles titles in the 1950's. 'I'm not only a specialist now on clay,' she said.

In the semi-finals, Sanchez Vicario will play Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, the ninth seed, whose 17-year-old sister, Magdalena, retired with a thigh injury when losing 6-2, 5-3 in their quarter-final. A rib injury caused Magdalena to quit in their only previous contest, at the Canadian Open. Yesterday's match lasted 63 minutes, something of a blessing. Tuesday's programme began with 'The Star Spangled Banner' at 11am and ended with 'The Lullaby of Broadway' at 12.46am the next morning.

After the longest match in the history of the tournament - a minute over five hours, six minutes more than Mats Wilander took to defeat Lendl in the 1988 final - Lendl left the Stadium Court, completed his interviews and drove home to Greenwich, Connecticut, savouring his first Grand Slam victory against Becker.

By this time, Michael Chang would have been in bed. His five-set win against MaliVai Washington, in a match switched to the adjacent Grandstand Court, finished an hour earlier, having taken three hours and 34 minutes.

The irony of it all was that 20,831 spectators considered themselves cheated. They were the ones who were informed at 6pm that the Lendl-Becker match was being transferred from the day session for the evening audience. Seven hours spent watching Stefan Edberg edge out Richard Krajicek (four hours and 18 minutes) and Mary Joe Fernandez eliminate Gabriela Sabatini was palatable, but Lendl v Becker was supposed to be the main course.

According to Jimmy Connors, who was beaten by Lendl in the second round, he was a better player eight years ago, when he was 32, than Lendl is at the same age now. Maybe so. The fact is that Becker, who is eight years younger than Lendl, finished second best in a contest which developed into the survival of the fitter: 6-7 (4-7), 6-2, 6-7 (4-7), 6-3, 6-4. 'I am actually more tired than disappointed,' the German said.

Their last meeting in a Grand Slam was at the 1991 Australian Open, Becker winning in four sets to extend a successful sequence: the Wimbledon final (1986) and semi-finals (1988 and 1989) and the 1989 US Open final. Lendl's breakthrough here also levelled their head-to-head series, 10-10.

Connors sneeringly accused Lendl of 'bunting' the ball, a pace-deadening departure from his former full-blooding driving. It was merely a case of different strokes for different folks, as Becker discovered. Lendl hit strong shots when it mattered, and Becker's serve was not sufficiently potent to shorten the points.

Apart from the odd moan on court, there was no carping from the German: 'It was just a question of two men battling for five hours and one had to lose, and it happened to be me.'

Lendl, like Becker, has had a lean year, his advance to an 11th consecutive quarter-final here restoring a sense of well-being. 'I always felt that I have it still in me, and it is coming together.'

He now plays Edberg. Their head-to-head series is also level,

13-13, and Lendl was disappointed that he was unable to capitalise on an enouraging start to their quarter-final at the Australian Open in January, a five-setter which ended emphatically in the Swede's favour, 6-1, 6-1. In the previous year's semi-finals, Edberg held two match points against Lendl in the fourth set before losing in the fifth.

Tonight's winner will meet either Michael Chang or the South African Wayne Ferreria for a place in the final. Chang's win against Washington, 6-2, 2-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1, makes the fourth seed the only American-born challenger in the lower half of the draw (Lendl was recently granted citizenship).

It is the first occasion that Chang has advanced beyond the fourth round here. Ferreira, the 12th seed, paid his first visit to the tournament last year, when a back injury forced him to retire in a second-round match against the defending champion, Pete Sampras, who was leading, 6-1, 6-2, 2-2.

Sampras, seeded three, became the first American through to the semi-finals yesterday, defeating the Russian, Alexander Volkov, 6-4,

6-1, 6-0, in an hour and 38 minutes; another relief from the marathons.

(Photograph omitted)