Tennis: Graf hunting for big game

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The Independent Online
STEFFI GRAF wore a T-shirt yesterday which featured the silhouette of a rhinoceros and the legend, 'Wanted live'. We trust that it bore no relation to anyone we might know.

Monica Seles is live, of that there is no doubt, and the women's singles championship at the Australian Open will end tomorrow by answering the question with which it began: can Graf repeat her Wimbledon triumph and prevent Seles from equalling her feat of winning the title here three years in succession?

Emphatic though Graf's victory in the Wimbledon final was (6-2, 6-1), the background to it left an air of uncertainty which is unlikely to settle until they duel again on the lawns of the All England Club.

Seles was totally subdued that day, muted by the controversy about her grunting, an issue fuelled by the media and ignited by two of the players, Nathalie Tauziat and Martina Navratilova.

The defeat denied her the opportunity of sharing with Graf the distinction of accomplishing the Grand Slam in a calendar year. It was Seles's only loss in seven consecutive Grand Slam finals.

Tomorrow's match will be the first occasion they have met since then, and both players consider they have a point to prove, even though Seles attempted play it down by saying she would not feel any different whoever was on the opposite side of the net in the final.

Graf was more forthcoming. 'I think it's a great opportunity to play against the best woman in the world,' she said, deadpan. 'I am excited about it. I think it is going to be special.'

She also knows what to expect. 'You definitely have to concentrate the whole match through,' she said, 'and you have to be patient and go for your shots at the right time. You can't let up for a few games, that's for sure. But she is human, too. Everybody makes mistakes.'

Seles, whose grunting here has been moderate and has not created problems for her so far, confined herself to saying: 'Steffi is going to serve very strongly, she is playing great tennis, she gives a great tempo, and I will just have to go for my shots.'

It will be the 10th contest between two players who have dominated the women's game since the great rivalry between Navratilova and Chris Evert came to an end. Graf leads the series, 6-3, and is ahead 3-2 in their Grand Slam matches at Wimbledon and the French Open.

Those statistics may not count for much here at Flinders Park, where Seles and Graf are about to meet for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament on a surface other than grass or clay.

Both players have excelled on the rubberised concrete courts, which is why no other name has been inscribed on the trophy since the National Tennis Centre was opened in 1988.

The only time Seles and Graf have competed against each other on a court even remotely similar to the ones here was in the final of the United States Hardcourts championship in San Antonio, Texas, in 1991. Graf won that one in straight sets, but she is far too experienced to regard the result of a match on the regular tour as a guide to the final of one the world's four major championships.

Few of their six matches on the way to tomorrow's match have offered clues as to the outcome. Seles responded to the indignity of dropping a set to the unseeded Julie Halard by walloping the Frenchwoman 6-0 in the final set, and Graf has not lost a set and was barely tested until faced with Jennifer Capriati in the quarter-finals and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in yesterday's semi-finals.

Sanchez Vicario denied Graf the possibilty of challenging Seles at the United States Open last September, the Spaniard winning their quarter-final in straight sets. Though defeated yesterday, 7-5, 6-4, Sanchez Vicario again proved to be a tenacious opponent.

She recovered from 0-2 in the opening set to come within two break points of 5-2, and was broken when serving for the set at 5-4. Then, in the second set, Sanchez Vicario fought back from 1-4 to 4-5, only for Graf to break her serve in the next game.

'It was a close service game,' the German acknowledged. 'She played very well in the first set. She rarely made any forehand mistakes, which she usually does. I played sort of OK; not extraordinary, nothing special. There were times when I was not aggressive enough.'

Seles almost shocked the spectators out of their seats during her courtside interview by informing them that her semi-final against Gabriela Sabatini, the third seed, had been 'a very close match'. It was as close as 6-1, 6-2 in 53 minutes, only two minutes more than the opening set of Graf's match.

'There were some good points,' Seles said later. There were. And there were some awful ones. In the fifth game of the second set, for instance, Sabatini lost her serve with two double-faults and two errors into the net.

Sabatini, whose quarter-final with Mary Pierce, of France, did not finish until 1.44 am on Wednesday, put her shortcomings down to illness. 'I think I have a virus, because I just feel very weak and very tired,' she said.

The Argentinian certainly did not appear to be able to concentrate on the task, constantly undoing impressive shots with loose ones, which is asking for trouble when she lacks a strong serve to begin with.

The local bookmakers are offering 4-11 Seles, 6-4 Graf, and Seles may prove to have the edge this time. We can only hope for a contest which comes even close to matching their epic French Open final last June: 10-8 in the final set, either way, would do nicely.

Two British juniors have made encouraging progress, beating four seeds between them in advancing to the quarter-finals of the boys' singles. James Baily, of Hampshire, defeated the third seed, Lars Rehmann, of Germany, 6-2, 7-5, and Jamie Delgado, of Berkshire, eliminated the ninth seed, Nicolas Escude, of France, 7-5, 6-3.

Their coach, Stephen Shaw, has been impressed by their attitude. 'They realise how important it is to experience the atmosphere of a Grand Slam event,' he said. 'They have watched matches involving players like Stefan Edberg and Jim Courier, and one day I saw them in a group of juniors watching Courier change his socks in the locker room. I said to them, 'They're only socks]', but it shows how enthusiastic they are.'

AUSTRALIAN OPEN (Melbourne): Women's singles, semi-finals: M SELES (Yug) bt G SABATINI (Arg) 6-1 6-2; S GRAF (Ger) bt A SANCHEZ VICARIO (Sp) 7-5 6-4. Women's doubles, quarter-finals: G FERNANDEZ (US) and N ZVEREVA (Bela) bt L McNEIL (US) and R STUBBS (Aus) 6-3 6-1; P SHRIVER (US) and E SMYLIE (Aus) bt L NEILAND (Lat) and J NOVOTNA (Cz Rep) 6-3 6-3. Men's doubles, semi-finals: D VISSER (SA) and L WARDER (Aus) bt J-L De Jager and M Ondruska (SA) 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-4; J FITZGERALD (Aus) and A JARRYD (Swe) bt M KRATZMANN and W MASUR (Aus) 7-6 6-4 6-1. Mixed doubles, quarter-finals: Z GARRISON-JACKSON and R LEACH (US) bt N Miyagi (Japan) and K Kinnear (US) 4-6 7-6 9-7; J Hetherington and G Michibata (Can) bt P Shriver (US) and S Stolle (Aus) 7-6 3-6 6-2; A SANCHEZ VICARIO (Sp) and T WOODBRIDGE (Aus) bt C Martinez and J Sanchez (Sp) 6-1 6-1. Semi-finals: GARRISON-JACKSON and LEACH bt N ZVEREVA (Bela) and K JONES (US) 6-2 7-6. Boys' singles, third round (selected): J Delgado (GB) bt N ESCUDE (Fr) 7-5 6-3; J Baily (GB) bt L REHMANN (Ger) 6-2 7-5.

(Seeds in capitals)

----------------------------------------------------------------- Women's Final Head to Head ----------------------------------------------------------------- STEFFI GRAF (Ger) v MONICA SELES (Yug) Graf leads 6-3 Tournament Surface Round Winner Score 1989 French Open clay SF Graf 6-3 3-6 6-3 1989 Wimbledon grass 4th Graf 6-0 6-1 1989 Brighton carpet F Graf 7-5 6-4 1990 Berlin clay F Seles 6-4 6-3 1990 French Open clay F Seles 7-6 6-4 1991 San Antonio hard F Graf 6-4 6-3 1991 Hamburg clay F Graf 7-5 6-7 6-3 1992 French Open clay F Seles 6-2 3-6 10-8 1992 Wimbledon grass F Graf 6-2 6-1 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)

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