Tennis: Graf has date with nostalgia: The defending champion finds the time to take a sentimental journey

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ON the eve of opening her defence of the Midland Bank Championship at Brighton yesterday, Steffi Graf went on a shopping expedition to London and persuaded the courtesy car driver to take her on a sentimental journey to Wimbledon.

She darted through the gates of the All England Club with the enthusiasm of a fan on Super Sunday, and then realised that the security guard probably did not recognise her as a member. 'I turned back and waved, and he said it was OK.'

Graf's timing was perfect. The chairman's secretary, Paula McMillan, was in the process of taking the trophies out of a cabinet in readiness for them to be collected and exhibited in a museum and asked if she would like to hold the Venus Rosewater Dish, which she has raised aloft on four occasions (champions receive replicas).

'Sure]' Graf said. She may have won nearly dollars 10m (in official prize-money alone), but there are some things that money cannot buy, and that silver gilt trophy, which cost 50 guineas in 1864, is one of them. Before leaving, the young German made a brief pilgrimage to the Centre Court where, on a rather warmer rainy day in July, she had overwhelmed Monica Seles, a muted world No 1, in the final. 'I just love the grass,' she said.

After this, playing on a carpet court at the Brighton Centre was bound to be something of an anti- climax, and Graf's first-round performance in defeating Larisa Savchenko-Neiland, of Latvia, 6-2,

6-3, was less than sparkling.

She had to save two break points in the opening game, and was broken to love in the first game of the second set. Happily for Graf, her opponent, 5-0 down after 19 minutes, held serve only three times. 'I wish I had played somebody I could rally with in the first round,' Graf said, 'but we both went for the shots, so it wasn't a good match to watch.'

An interested observer was Pavel Slozil, the Czechoslovakian who was Graf's coach for five years, including the pinnacle of her accomplishments, the Grand Slam in 1988. They ceased working together a year ago, shortly after Graf had won the Brighton title for the fifth time.

Since then, Graf has been coached by the Swiss, Heinz Gunthardt and Slozil has experienced a brief working relationship with the American teenager, Jennifer Capriati, before being left with ample time to whittle his golf handicap from 23 to 13.

This week he started a new job coaching the 17-year-old Magdalena Maleeva, the youngest, and perhaps the most exciting, of the three Bulgarian sisters, all of whom were ranked in the world top 20 a couple of weeks ago (one Balkan household achieving what has eluded the whole of Britain).

Slozil's role is to assist the Maleeva matriach, Yulia, a former Federation Cup player who coached Manuela and Katerina until they were safely installed in the rankings and is currently supervising Magdalena's progress.

Katerina, the middle one, had a bad day, chiefly because she encountered Pascale Paradis- Mangon when the French player was in the mood to play her shots with confidence. The sixth-seeded Maleeva lost an interesting contest, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. The unseeded Maleeva fared better, Magdalena defeating the Belgian Sabine Appelmans, who is ranked one spot above her at No 20, 6-4, 6-1.

'Maggie,' a name associated with success at the Tory Party's conference centre, is no respecter of reputations, as she showed when eliminating Martina Navratilova in the second round of the French Open. She next plays the seventh seed, Nathalie Tauziat, a match which ought to give Slozil a better chance to assess the work which needs to be done in the 15 to 20 weeks a year he will spend with her.

Has he glimpsed qualities similar to those of Graf and Capriati? 'It's an individual sport and everybody is different. Maybe at the moment she has Steffi's will to win and chases every ball. Like Jennifer, she has very good groundstrokes on both sides. But her build is not as strong as Jennifer's, and when we leave Brighton we will spend some weeks working on her physical conditioning.'

One of the major changes this time is that Slozil will be dealing with a determined tennis mother, having experienced what it is like to have to cope with two strong- willed father's, Peter Graf and Stefano Capriati. 'I have to respect the mother,' he said. 'She was a very good player in her own right, so she can appreciate what is necessary more than other people who have never played.'

(Photograph omitted)