TENNIS : Graf sees room at top for Seles

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reports from Key Biscayne

Steffi Graf said yesterday that she would not object to Monica Seles being given a joint No 1 world ranking if that would encourage her great rival to make a comeback.

Rumours of a Seles return, almost two years after she was stabbed during a match in Germany, continue to percolate at the Lipton Championships here - along with contrary speculation that the former world champion's tennis career may end in multi-million dollar compensation settlements.

Graf's message of support coincided with the opening day of the re-trial in Hamburg of Seles' assailant, Gunther Parche, who was given a two-year suspended jail sentence in October, 1993. Parche told police he attacked Seles so that Graf would replace her as the No 1.

The Women's Tennis Association Tour is willing to consider giving the 21-year-old Seles dispensations, including special seedings and rankings (her name blipped off the computer in February 1994).

Graf, ranked No 2 behind Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, was asked to comment about a joint-top ranking. "I am not the No 1 right now, so I have no problem," she pointed out, smiling. And if she were? "No, I wouldn't have one either.''

Though a joint No 1 world ranking would be an innovation, a joint No 1 seeding for the Wimbledon women's singles championship was given in 1985, when the seedings committee was unable to choose between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

Acknowledging that not everybody would share her views, Graf added: "It is going to be a very difficult decision to give her the No 1 ranking if she has not played for almost two years. People would probably have a problem with that. I definitely think she should get seedings or rankings; whichever one doesn't matter to me.

"It would be great for everyone to see her play. I think that would be extraordinary. I hope that it will happen. There have been so many rumours. Hopefully this one is right. I would love to see her at her highest level again, but you have to see if that really develops.''

Is it possible for Seles to be one of the top three contenders? "I think if you give her time, and she keeps practising hard, she will have no problem.''

Graf, in spite of concern about a chronic back problem, continues to compete with the enthusiasm that brought her 15 Grand Slam titles. She was in spectacular form yesterday, advancing to the Lipton quarter-finals with a 6-0, 6-1 win against Austria's Judith Wiesner.

Faced with the full force of the defending champion's talent, Wiesner won only eight points in the opening set and six in the first five games of the second set. She then recovered from 0-40, saving three match points before salvaging her only game. Graf then served out to love.

The Austrian, ranked No 20, had been beaten in her seven previous matches against Graf, but had not suffered so heavy a defeat since losing by the same score in Hamburg in 1991. "I don't think I could play better," Graf said. "Everything I tried worked.''

It was the German's 11th consecutive win of the year, and she has yet to drop a set. She was in a similar situation last year until Natalia Zvereva took a set off her in the final here. The difference is that Graf began 1994 by winning the Australian Open title, whereas this year's campaign was delayed by injury.

The only frown seen from her this week was when a German journalist enquired if she wore a corset for her back in practice as well as during matches. "It's not a corset," she said indignantly, "it's a support.''

In the men's singles, the born-again Mats Wilander advanced to the quarter- finals with a 6-4, 6-2 win against the Dutchman Jan Siemerink.

Andre Agassi, the second seed, defeated his American compatriot, MaliVai Washington, 6-3, 6-4 and plays South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, the eighth seed, in the quarter-finals.

Missing the action are 22 international umpires and line judges whose visas do not permit them to work. It is hoped the problem will be resolved for future events.

Scores, Sporting Digest, page 39