Tennis: Graf rolls on confidently

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The Independent Online
AN ADMIRER at the Midland Bank Championships here presented Steffi Graf with a large book of her career results yesterday, and the four-times Wimbledon champion was fascinated by some of the statistics it contained. She has, for example, played Gabriela Sabatini more often than anybody else (33 times, winning 22) and has never lost to the three Maleeva sisters (30 matches).

What surprised Graf more than anything was that while no player currently in the world top 10 led her in a head-to-head series, two Britons do, and at least one of them always will.

Jo Durie was the last British player to succeed against the 23-year-old German, here at the Brighton Centre in 1985, and leads her 4-3. The first, and the one who retired undefeated, was Shelly Walpole, of Surrey.

Graf was 13 and her opponent five years her senior when they met on a clay court in the semi-finals of a satellite tournament at the Warwickshire Club in Solihull in May, 1983. Walpole won, 6-2, 6-3, and the same year qualified for the United States Open, losing to Chris Evert.

The holder of the British junior hardcourts championship for three years from 1981, Walpole, the daughter of Brian Walpole, a former chief pilot of Concorde, disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle of outstanding prospects who never made the grade. She attained a world ranking of 127 before going into coaching and marrying a theological student from Canada. They now live near Chicago.

This delving began because Graf had no recollection of one of her more recent results, a 6-0, 6-3 win on clay against the American Lori McNeil in the Federation Cup in Frankfurt in July. McNeil remembered the match only too well: 'I tried to play the game too fast, at Steffi's pace, and she was hitting the ball very well after just winning Wimbledon.'

Pace was again a factor when Graf scored the most emphatic of her eight wins without reply against McNeil, 6-0, 6-2 in yesterday's quarter-finals. So, too, was the German's sudden urge to start hitting topspin backhand winners after years spent blasting forehands from both sides of the court. 'I worked very hard on the backhand in practice last week, and it's paying off,' she said.

McNeil made the point that concentration was the main difference between the players at the top and those who merely come close, in which case she would have been grateful to see her opponent's interest begin to waver at the start of the second set.

After conceding only two points on her serve in the first set, Graf dropped twice as many in the opening game of the second. Rousing herself to hold, she then broke McNeil to love, only for the American to break back and win her first game of the match. Graf immediately regained control with a resumption of swift movements and confident strokes.

Graf now plays Anke Huber, the 17-year-old who endeavours to avoid her illustrious compatriot's shadow and may today be chasing it. Huber's only problem in an impressive win against Pascale Paradis-Mangon, of France, 6-3, 6-1, was when she twisted her left ankle, Durie fashion, in the seventh game. Happily, she was able to continue, in contrast to the British No 1, who had intended to partner her in the doubles event.

Mary Joe Fernandez, the second seed, assured herself of a place in the semi-finals, defeating Nathalie Tauziat, of France, the seventh seed, 6-4, 6-3. There she will meet Jana Novotna, the fifth seed, who defeated Conchita Martinez, the third seed, 6-4, 6-2.

Results, Sport in Short, page 47

(Photograph omitted)