Tennis: Graf continues her stately progress

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reports from Key Biscayne

Steffi Graf played as elegantly as she looked while advancing to the fourth round of the Lipton Championships here yesterday with a 6-3, 6- 2 win against Gigi Fernandez. The defending champion hit 35 winners, 12 on her backhand, and was guilty of only three unforced errors.

Impressive though the statistics are, a greater impression was created by the freedom with which Graf played, interspersing her forehands with intelligent lobs and the odd volley. It was probably only coincidence that the German's chief rival here, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, had been eliminated after a frenzied match the previous evening.

Graf and Sanchez Vicario have dominated the event for the past four years, but the Spanish second seed was unable to contain Karina Habsudova, a talented Slovak, in her opening match.

Habsudova, ranked No 98, won 2-6, 6-3, 7-6, but only after having a 5- 2 lead whittled away in the final set. She was unable to convert a match point at 5-3 and two more at 6-5, and finally secured victory at the fourth attempt in a tie-break, 7-4, after Sanchez Vicario had led 3-1.

"I had my chances in the tie-break, but she hit better shots than me," the Spaniard acknowledged. "I had not played a match for three weeks and I felt that a little bit, but I'm not going to lose my confidence because I lost this match."

Graf and Fernandez, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1994, had only played each other twice before on the tour, with ll years separating the matches. The American won an encounter on grass in Sydney in 1983, Graf making amends on a rubberised concrete court at Indian Wells, California, two years ago.

Few would have guessed that they had experienced so little of each other's shots when the fourth game unfolded yesterday. They duelled through 26 points, with Fernandez saving four break points before holding serve.

Having survived that, the American double-faulted to present Graf with a 5-3 lead. Fernandez found herself with an opportunity to break back as Graf missed a volley when serving for the set, but the Wimbledon champion rescued the situation with a forehand pass.

Graf broke in the opening game of the second set, from which point the spectators were able to relax and enjoy the variety of her shots. Naturally, Graf was not entirely satisfied with her performance. "I think it was a pretty solid match, but maybe sometimes on my return I did not step into my slices as often as I should, so that's the only thing I would criticise," she said.

Having dispensed with one American Fernandez, Graf is faced with another. She now plays Gigi's former doubles partner, Mary Joe.

Andre Agassi, the men's defending champion, teetered on Saturday night before winning his opening match 6-4, 1-6, 7-6, against Germany's Bernd Karbacher. Agassi appeared lethargic at times, even though the draw had opened up before he arrived on court, Boris Becker withdrawing due to illness and Thomas Muster again finding the No 1 ranking to be a banana skin.

Karbacher was disappointed not to win, saying of Agassi: "He's not as good as he was last year. He's lost a couple of close matches, so he's not as confident. There was a lack of concentration." The third-seeded Agassi was not inclined to argue.

"I'm definitely a little off my game," he said. "I don't quite feel like I'm moving well. When that's the case, sometimes I take needless chances. I don't feel like I'm playing as strong as last year, but it can turn around at any moment. That's the way it always goes. Hopefully it will happen here."

Agassi's parting shots were encouraging. He sprinted round his backhand to dispatch the German's second serves with thunderous forehand drives to secure the match 7-4 in the tie-break.