TENNIS: Date's appointment with Graf

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The Independent Online


reports from Key Biscayne

A player with an injured shoulder stands between Steffi Graf and the distinction of becoming only the second woman in the history of the sport to amass more than $15m (£10m) in prize-money (Martina Navratilova retired last year after winning $20.3m).

Assuming that Kimiko Date is fit to play in the women's singles final at the Lipton Championships here today, the Japanese seventh seed must hope that the defending champion breaks the habit of a lifetime and capitulates in the manner of Gabriela Sabatini.

Telephone calls to Miami 6151 prompt a recorded message from the Argentinian: "Sorry, but I'm out." The number represents the lead Sabatini squandered in losing to Date in the semi-finals here on Thursday and also, it may be remembered, when playing Mary Joe Fernandez at the 1993 French Open.

Greg Cote, writing in the Miami Herald, suggested that a limited edition porcelain Gaby Doll, currently on the market, double-faults when you wind it up. Sabatini hit a staggering 18 and contributed 69 unforced errors to a total of 148 as Date came back to win, 1-6, 7-6, 7-6.

"My shoulder is painful," Date said. "I never thought of winning until the last point, because my condition was really bad." It is hoped that a day's rest will enable her to compete against Graf.

A strained right rotator-cuff muscle, which has troubled Date periodically for four years, but has not precluded her from winning more than $1m, recurred while she was practising at the beginning of the week.

Though naturally left-handed, Date was forced to play right-handed as a child because in Japan it is considered unladylike for women to hit the ball left-handed. Though she occasionally hits shots left-handed during rallies, she lacks the technique and confidence to switch to left-handed serves in the manner of the ambidextrous American, Luke Jensen.

Graf knows about pain. A chronic problem with the lower back has prompted her to wear a support during matches. None the less, the world No 2 has won her 13 matches this year without the loss of a set.

Her form was close to perfection when she defeated Austria's Judith Wiesner, 6-0, 6-1, in the fourth round on Tuesday. Afterwards, Graf said she would welcome Monica Seles back to the tour with a joint No 1 ranking, since when, ironically, an edge of nervousness has permeated the German's play, as if her rival's return were imminent.

Errors punctuated Graf's quarter-final against Natasha Zvereva, and were a feature of a 6-2, 7-5 victory requiring five match points against Jana Novotna in the semi-finals.

Both Graf and Novotna were irritated by some of the line calls, and the crowd voiced their sympathy with the Czech when she was warned for time wasting in the fifth game. Novotna merely had walked to the back of the court to mop her brow before Graf prepared to serve after the second deuce.

Andre Agassi swept through a third-set tie-break, 7-1, to advance tomorrow's men's singles final with a 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 win against Sweden's Magnus Larsson. Agassi primed himself for the shoot-out by winning the 10th game with an ace followed by a spectacular running forehand across court.

Larsson, who won their only previous encounter, in the quarter-finals of the Grand Slam Cup in Munich last December, became the first player to take a set off Agassi in five matches this week. But when the Swede double-faulted for 1-4 in the tie-break, his prospects evaporated.

Agassi blamed a swirling wind for some "strange, unpredictable tennis", and described Larsson as "a very lethargic player who is one of the best shot-makers in tennis, which is an odd combination".

LIPTON CHAMPIONSHIPS (Key Biscayne, Florida) Men's quarter-finals: P Sampras (US) bt A Medvedev (Ukr) 6-1 6-7 6-4; J Bjorkman (Swe) bt M Wilander (Swe) 6-2 1-6 7-5. Semi-final: A Agassi (US) M Larsson (Swe) 7-5, 4-6, 7-6. Women's quarter-final: K Date (Japan) bt G Sabatini (Arg) 1-6 7-6 7-6. Semi-final: S Graf (Ger) bt J Novotna (Cz Rep) 6-2 7-5.