Tennis: Graf and Agassi advance in spite of the elements

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ANOTHER storm was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, the Lipton Championships here in Florida being one of the sites in its projected path. Though meteorologists assured us that this one will be a storm in a teacup compared with Saturday's deadly 109mph blast, solid shelter was recommended.

The tournament continued when rain permitted, Steffi Graf being fortunate to start and finish early for the third consecutive day. The Wimbledon champion advanced to the quarter-finals by defeating Patty Fendick, 6-1, 6-4. This was her seventh successive win over the Californian, against whom she dropped a set in the fourth round at Wimbledon last summer.

Andre Agassi spent three hours waiting to complete his third round match against the Australian, Jason Stoltenberg, after winning the first five games. The man who shared the Wimbledon honours with Graf did not waste time on returning to the Centre Court, winning 6-0, 6-1.

Graf, who generally coped well with a capricious wind on the Centre Court, was troubled when her opponent made a spirited revival from 1-4 in the second set. Fendick held serve to love, and Graf double-faulted twice to be broken for 4-3. The American overhit too many shots when serving to stay in the match at 4-5.

When it was over, Graf, the No 1 seed, took a lift back to the locker rooms on a buggy, and Fendick walked the 300 yards. The American had driven behind Graf on the way to the tennis centre. 'I joked with her that she should have hit me with the car,' Graf said. 'She said she was thinking about it.'

Jane Tabor, a British umpire, was in the chair for the match. Though the much-travelled Tabor has not known a storm as bad as the one which struck in the early hours of Saturday, she has experienced her share of turbulence on the court. When the Australian Open was last played at Kooyong, in 1987, one of those sudden gales common to Melbourne rocked her chair perilously on the Centre Court and blew off the canopy, which narrowly missed her head.

'I didn't think the wind this morning was as bad as yesterday,' Tabor said. 'It certainly was not as bad on the Centre Court. The biggest problem I had on the outside courts yesterday was with the wind burning my eyes.'

Graf, who finished her business in 62 minutes and escaped the rain, has impressed one of her near neighbours with her application. 'Steffi lives just a couple of blocks from me in Boca Raton,' Chris Evert said, 'and I have seen how she has been practising four hours a day.'

Evert has noticed an improvement in Graf's game. 'The last couple of years she wasn't up to par, but now she's better. She has more shots. She's coming over her backhand more, and she comes to the net more, except when she lost the Australian Open final to Monica Seles. I don't think she's afraid to come to the net more. She looks very eager.'

In retirement, the American has some interesting observations to make concerning the current leaders on the women's tour. Even before Jennifer Capriati lost to the lower-ranked Judith Wiesner, of Austria, in the second round here, Evert expressed doubts that the teenager once coached by her father was ready to add a Grand Slam title to her Olympic gold medal.

'That's only because I see Steffi and Monica and their rivalry helping each other's games,' Evert said. 'It was like Martina Navratilova and I elevated each other's games. There's still a gap between Monica and Steffi and then the rest of the players.'

As for Gabriela Sabatini, Evert is not alone in doubting that the Argentinian has the mental intensity of a Seles or a Graf. 'Steffi and Monica have that gift to sustain it a whole year, Gaby is more laid back,' she said.

And the 36-year-old Navratilova? 'Martina is an unknown like she was the last couple of years. I practised at Aspen with her and she was hitting better than ever. The hitch was out of her serve. She's moving beautifully and she's in great shape. She's only planning on playing two Grand Slams, just Wimbledon and the US Open . . I think she's really going to go hard for a 10th Wimbledon singles title.

'I think Wimbledon will be the most interesting part of the year. We know Monica can win the French and Steffi will be tough. Martina will be an added factor at Wimbledon, and will Monica find a way to win there?' Watch this space.