Tennis: Graf seeks path to her peak: World No 1 unfulfilled despite ending French famine in women's final

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THERE are occasions when losers seem happier than winners, and Saturday was one of them. Mary Joe Fernandez was chuffed to have taken a set in a Grand Slam final for the first time, even though she could have won the French Open title. Steffi Graf looked marginally less miserable in the interview room than she did a year ago, when she was narrowly defeated in an epic contest with Monica Seles.

The contrasting moods encapsulated the difference between champions and runners-up. Graf, ever her own sternest critic, had not played well in winning an exciting, if error- strewn, contest, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, and could not hide her disappointment. At the same time, one wondered if she was troubled by something else.

Having ended five years of famine at Roland Garros, Graf intends to spend a few days at home in Germany before going to England to prepare for the defence of her Wimbledon title. Aside from anything else, she will be cheered by her mother's recovery from back surgery. Heidi Graf travelled from Florida to see the final.

On leaving Paris last year, Graf's countenance was grim after she had fought back against Seles, only to be denied 10-8 in the final set. 'I feel terrible,' she said then. 'It's hard to be positive right now.' She recovered and a month later beat a muted Seles in the final at the All England Club.

Seles, the victim of a knife attack in Hamburg at the end of April, was not here to defend the French title. Nor will she be at Wimbledon. Perhaps this contributed to Graf's less than effusive manner, which did not improve when she was asked, yet again, if it was a nice feeling to back at No 1 in the world. 'It doesn't matter to me. It is probably the hundredth time that I said it,' was her response.

Graf and Seles have dominated the game to such extent that one or the other has featured in 24 of the last 25 Grand Slam finals, the one exception being Martina Navratilova's record ninth Wimbledon triumph in 1990, when she defeated Zina Garrison.

Whatever Graf may think about being No 1, the last thing she would want would be to regain the status when her chief rival was unable to compete. She needs the stimulus of a challenge, and it may actually depress her to find that she is still able to fend off the likes of Fernandez even when not in peak form.

Only six players have defeated Graf in a Grand Slam championship since she won the first of her 12 major titles here in 1987. Fernandez missed an outstanding opportunity of joining Navratilova, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Garrison, Jana Novotna, Gabriela Sabatini and Seles in this exclusive club.

The American, who was not helped by a headache, had two break points for 3-0 in the final set, failed to convert them, lost her lead and then surprised everybody by taking the initiative again to break for 4-3. It was then that the weight of 10 previous defeats by Graf seemed to diminish her, and she capitulated in a similar fashion to their last encounter in Berlin three weeks earlier.

'It is disappointing not to have won today, but overall I am very pleased,' Fernandez said. She consoled herself with thoughts of the amazing comeback from 1-6, 1-5 against Sabatini in the quarter-finals and the straight-sets win against Sanchez Vicario which put her in the final. She also had a cheque for pounds 168,500, Graf receiving twice that.

'I didn't play great tennis,' Graf said, 'but I won it because at the end I was playing better tactically. I still feel that I am not at my best, and that is what keeps pushing me.' Wimbledon is further motivation, especially with the 36-year-old Navratilova showing every sign of being in trim to make another substantial challenge.

Martina Navratilova has urged Wimbledon's seeding committee to ignore the present world rankings and put her in the opposite half of the draw to Steffi Graf. Navratilova said: 'I think I should be seeded joint No 2 with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario behind Steffi Graf. I don't know if that is possible but it seems most logical. I am very close with Arantxa this season and grass comes into consideration.'

(Photograph omitted)

Results, Sporting Digest, page 31