Tennis: Graf back in routine with renewed enthusiasm: Becker full of excuses as he falls at the first hurdle but German compatriot proves her game is in rude health

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The Independent Online
MEDICAL bulletins being a feature of the United States Open, we await news of Pete Sampras's left ankle today, when he opens his title defence against Kevin Ullyett, a South African qualifier, having seen Steffi Graf successfully ease her lower back through a routine 45-minute work-out yesterday against Anne Mall, an American ranked No 139 in the world.

After winning 6-2, 6-1, Graf revealed that her injury probably resulted from a stress fracture which had been undetected for a year. 'The bone is kind of rebuilding, and so maybe there's an irritation there and inflammation in that spot,' she said.

'I had a lot of back problems last year, and sometimes I took injections. It must have happened then, but nobody realised. With time, it can be no problem at all. I just need time to rest.'

Fortunately, treatment has ensured that the injury does not cause Graf pain during matches, the former Wimbledon champion adding pointedly that her decision to compete was an indication of her continuing enthusiasm.

She appears determined to prove to her rivals that she has recovered from her first-round defeat at the All England Club, the only reminder of which yesterday came when her conqueror, Lori McNeil, fell in the opening round. The 13th seed was defeated by Anna Smashnova, of Israel, 6-2, 6-4.

Graf's feeling of well-being is not shared by her German compatriot, Boris Becker, who has already packed his rackets.

Stepping on a court believing it to be alien territory is among the myriad sensations which can erode a player's confidence. It happened to Becker the moment he realised that a degree of pace had been removed from the Flushing Meadow concrete.

Convenient excuses are part of the sport, many competitors requiring to feed on external factors for their shortcomings. Becker's notion that he could no longer serve and volley with impunity seemed to him to be a valid reason for his first- round defeat by Richey Reneberg, an American counter-puncher ranked No 48 in the world.

The seventh-seeded Becker, who has not won a Grand Slam title since the 1991 Australian Open, was fancied to prosper, perhaps even triumph as in 1989, when he added the US Open to his Wimbledon title. But the organisers' attempt to reduce the potency of serves by treating the courts to an extra coating of rubber evidently had an effect. So, too, according to Becker, did the selection of 'heavy balls'.

In addition, the German met an opponent who played spendidly on the night to win in five sets. Reneberg, who had lost six previous encounters with Becker, capitalised on his opponent's suspicion of the court and the balls by taking a two-set lead. He withstood a Becker recovery and clinched a fifth set shoot-out, 7-5, on his sixth match point to win, 6- 1, 6-4, 4-6, 1-6,

7-6. 'It's the best set of tennis I have played in my life,' Reneberg said.

Becker having joined Goran Ivanisevic, the second seed, who was a projected quarter-final opponent, through the exit, the lower half of the draw was almost denuded further. Todd Martin, the ninth seed, saved three match points against the Frenchman, Guillaume Raoux, at 5-4 in the fifth set and went on to win a tie-break, 7-1.

Clare Wood's prospects of a second-round meeting with Conchita Martinez, the Wimbledon champion, evaporated when she was defeated by Nicole Arendt 6-2, 7-6. The American saved two set points in the second set and Wood, the British No 1, twice double faulted in losing the tie-break 7-5.