Tennis: Graf pattern looks ominous for Date

Wimbledon '96: Guy Hodgson looks forward to the women's singles semi-finals
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Martina Navratilova, who knows a thing or two about Wimbledon titles, summed up what it will take to win the women's singles. "You have to hope you are at the very top of your game," she said, "and that Steffi Graf is average."

Some hope. It has happened twice at the All England Club since the German turned 19 and if you are looking for similarities in her aberrations there is one: both of her defeats were against black Americans.

Unfortunately for Kimiko Date, who attempts to halt the most irresistible force in grass court tennis today in the semi-finals, she fails to meet the criteria on two counts. Further more, Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil were serve and volleyers while the 25-year-old Japanese is barely big enough to see over the net. She sticks to the baseline like the paint.

Date, a semi-finalist at the Australian Open two years ago, claims to be 5ft 4in, although she appears smaller. Her game is like that of a pet dog; she will fetch all day in the hope her opponent will get dispirited.

"I'm shorter than the other players," the 12th seed said, "and I'm lacking in power. My strategy is to put pressure on my opponents with my returning game." In other words, she waits until the woman on the other side of the net makes a mistake.

Graf is less likely than anyone else to provide Date with her diet of errors but, notwithstanding a head-to-head record of 6-1 in the six-time champion's favour, the omens are not entirely unfavourable for an upset. Their last meeting, for example, went in the underdog's favour, 7-6, 3- 6, 12-10, in the Federation Cup earlier this year.

"She stays really low," Graf said of her semi-final opponent. "She keeps the ball low and she likes it if somebody plays fast and she can use the power of the opponent." And a weakness? "Her first serve maybe is not as strong as it needs to be on grass."

Mary Pierce, who lost to Date in the quarter-finals, concurs. "Kimiko just plays," she said, damning with faint praise. "She's difficult because she brings a lot of balls back and doesn't make any mistakes. But she doesn't do anything special." Safe to say, it will be some surprise if Graf loses today.

Nothing special could have summed up Meredith McGrath's career prior to this year, to an extent that she failed to make it to the Women's Tennis Association media handbook because she was out of the top 100. At 27 in the world, she would be the first unseeded player to reach the women's final since Billie Jean Moffit (King) in 1963.

McGrath, whose win at Edgbaston Priory last month testifies to her prowess on grass, would confound the norm in more ways than one if she beats the fourth seed, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, today. An American who prefers to live in Europe - Switzerland - she does not have the usual almost parent- child relationship with a coach - for most of the time she does not have a coach all.

The 25-year-old from Michigan consulted a coach, Urs Walter, earlier this year but at Wimbledon she is alone and has had to search the locker- room for practice partners. Five have filled in so far, including Jana Novotna. As she puts it, if someone had told her at the start of the tournament she would last longer than Novotna, "I would have laughed".

No one is laughing now, least of all Sanchez Vicario, who had a less comfortable time disposing of McGrath 6-3, 6-4 in the quarter-finals at Amelia Island this year than the scoreline suggests. "It was a pretty close match," McGrath recalled. "I felt I had a lot of chances in that match and couldn't take advantage of them. I feel good going into playing Arantxa. I don't know why, but I feel good."

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