Tennis: Graf rewarded after long wait

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IT HAD always seemed like a waste of a great final, and the meeting of Steffi Graf and Venus Williams in the round of 16 yesterday was turning out to justify its billing, despite the efforts of the rain to corrupt an unusually rich narrative. In fact the repeated stoppages gave the contest between the No 2 and No 6 seeds a convoluted logic of its own, heightening the drama as the two left the Centre Court for the fourth time with Graf serving at 6-2, 3-6, 1-2 and 40-15 and the players still wrestling on the edge of a precipice.

A delayed start and an interrupted knock-up meant that play did not start until an hour after the scheduled start, and the disruption seemed to have a greater effect on the less experienced player. As she had against Anna Kournikova the previous day, the 19-year-old Williams appeared to use the first set as an extended knock-up. She worked her way to a break point in the fifth game but failed to capitalise and was immediately given a lesson in how to make such opportunities count when Graf, looking for her 22nd Grand Slam title, took advantage of two cruel net-cords to break Williams' serve, weak and inconsistent at this stage, and to take a 4-2 lead.

The match began to gather momentum and meaning in the seventh game, a mini-epic in which Graf successfully fended off three break points, concentrating on crosscourt backhands which she hit with a heavy slice in order to make her opponent bend and hit from below the net. After two marathon exchanges, a mis-hit return by Williams took the seven-times champion's lead to 5- 2.

Williams was beginning to move around the court more easily and to hit her shots with a freer swing, finding greater extension on both wings as she covered the baseline in pursuit of the drives with which Graf probed the corners of the court. But despite two brisk volleys which took her to within a point of 5-3, the American netted a forehand at the end of another long exchange to surrender her service for the second time and, with it, the first set.

With Graf serving at 1-1 in the second set, the match began to reveal its possibilities in a series of furious rallies full of withering ground strokes and desperate recoveries. Williams was clearly trying to concentrate on avoiding her opponent's legendary forehand, but seemed at this stage to lack the concentration necessary to pursue the policy through rallies of 12 or 14 strokes. And every time she weakened and turned a shot towards Graf's stronger wing, the ball came back at a much higher pace and her control of the exchange was lost.

Yet at 2-2 and 15-all, a whipped return pierced Graf's forehand defence with a ferocity that clearly surprised the German. And two points later Williams had set up a service break which she converted an instant before more light rain forced the players off the court for another break.

When they returned, an hour and four minutes later, it was Williams who managed to recreate the dominance she had so painstakingly achieved. Yet when Graf had fought her way back from 40-0 down to 40-30 on Williams' serve, she was prevented from taking the match to deuce only by an umpire's over-rule on the American's baseline drive, leaving Graf hugely upset.

Breaking serve to take a 5-2 lead, Williams showed her ambition to establish complete dominance in the way she changed tack and suddenly began to attack Graf's forehand, increasing the pace and weight of shots that bored in, one after another, until finally they ground her opponent down and produced an error. Three times in the seventh game of the second set she demonstrated this breathtaking presumption; twice the trick came off, and she was able to take the game by surprising Graf with a sudden switch to the backhand, inducing a loose drive that invited a crushing volley.

And then, having clawed her way back into the match, Williams appeared to take an extraordinary risk. At 15-15, she served two double faults on consecutive points - her first of the match. At 15-40, she sent down a first serve at 77mph, 50mph below her maximum, and met Graf's return with a weak forehand that fell wide. As a result, she would need to break Graf's serve in the next game to take the set 6-3 and thus start the final set on her own serve. And that, whether by design or otherwise, is exactly what she did, lifting herself to another level without obvious effort and zipping through Graf's deliveries with a series of blood-freezing returns.

The benefit to her in terms of controlling the match's overall shape was immediately obvious. She opened the deciding set by serving out to love, firing aces at 117 and 113mph and hitting an imperious winner that had Graf scrambling deep in the backhand corner. At that moment, if the match had continued, it seemed highly improbable that Graf would have been able to find a way of undermining her opponent's soaring confidence and turning the tide back in her own favour.

So she must have been enormously grateful when the rain came back with Williams leading 1-0 in the third. And when the players returned, 91 minutes later, it was clear that the American's fire had gone out again. As Graf held serve against a series of weak returns, her opponent seemed to be back in the mood of the early games of the first set, labouring and lumbering, hitting without power, accuracy or a thought for tactics. She held her own serve with difficulty, rousing herself for the final point, on which she teased Graf's backhand several times, then switched to an examination of the other flank, and eventually finished off the game with a skimming forehand that sliced the court open like a cheese-wire.

It gave her a 2-1 lead and also represented a clear warning that she was pulling herself out of the brief slump. She confirmed that in the next game, when she and Graf played out two extended rallies that contained all the skill, athleticism and competitive will power of these two extraordinary tennis players.

At 15-15, Graf opened an exchange in which the ball hissed back and forth millimetres above the net perhaps 20 times, changing angle and pace by small but significant increments while building an intensity so shattering that it seemed as though the destiny of the whole match was being decided in these moments of divine geometry. Williams lost that one, with a drive beyond the baseline: 30-15. And then they did it again, Graf swinging the ball from wing to wing, asking questions of her opponent perhaps as difficult as any she has ever set, and Williams answering with replies of equal quality until, at last, she found the net: 40-15. And at that moment, after an hour and 22 minutes of play, with the match poised to find its resolution, the blasted drizzle started again and sent them both off to recover, reassess, rethink, and ready themselves for the final episode of a struggle whose true dimensions surely extend far beyond the bare facts of its existence.