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Tennis: Graf stumbles over first hurdle

SHE MIGHT have had money troubles, but Steffi Graf is only three wins from overtaking Martina Navratilova as the biggest prize earner in the women's game. A place here in the United States Open quarter-finals would give the former world champion the $63,970 (around pounds 40,000) she needs to pass Navratilova's $20,344,061 (pounds 12,715,000).

Graf will need to improve on yesterday's form, when she was taken to three sets in her opening match against Corina Morariu, a determined 20- year-old from Detroit, ranked No 32. Graf, a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 winner, may vent her frustration after making so many unforced errors -15 of them in the second set - on her second-round opponent, Marlene Weingartner, an 18-year-old German qualifier, ranked No 153.

Graf, the No 8 seed, made a brisk start, although her progress through the opening set was interrupted when she lost her serve in the fourth game. Morariu, although unable to save the set, adjusted her sunglasses and attacked every ball in the second set.

Graf, overhitting a backhand to lose serve to love for 2-4, had an opporunity to recover the break in the next game, but again failed on the backhand, this time returning serve.

Morariu, serving at 5-3, failed to convert her first set point, hitting a forehand over the baseline from a Graf return at 40-15, but made amends with a backhand down the line on the second opportunity.

Taking a set from the five-times US Open champion was as far as Morariu went. Graf, although double-faulting on her first game point in the third set, was not troubled after breaking to love in the second game.

While one is inclined to sympathise with Graf's compatriot, Weingartner, in the second round, Graf will have to be wary if she then finds herself facing Mirjana Lucic in round three.

Win or lose, Lucic intends to make the most of competing without the influence of her father. "It is the first time in my life that I really enjoy tennis," the 16-year-old Croat said after defeating Kristie Boogert, of the Netherlands, 6-3, 6-2.

Lucic, who left her father, Marinko, to come to the United States, accusing him of physically and mentally abusing her, is based at the Nick Bollettieri tennis acadamy in Florida. "I was telling people before that I was enjoying myself and that I was feeling great," she said. "Obviously it wasn't like that. There were a lot of things going on for a lot of years. Mentally and physically I couldn't handle that any more."

Although her opening performance was uneven, chiefly because of a lack of match practice, Lucic was evidently pleased to be on the court. "My mother, sisters and two brothers were with me today, and I just feel the happiest in the world," she said. "Every point when I looked at them they gave me a sign of support. Players should have a coach, or sparring partners, whoever. But from their parents, their family, they should only get the best support. I am here to play my tennis and to try to forget the bad things."

Marinko Lucic, in a letter to a Zagreb newspaper, denied beating or mistreating Mirjana as a reaction to poor tennis results. "I never used excessive force," he wrote, "and if I did give her the occasional slap, it was because of her behaviour. I did what I believe was best for my child."

Monica Seles began her campaign on Monday night with a win against Florencia Labat, of Argentina, 7-6, 6-2, after ringing the bell to start an ominous day of trading at the New York Stock Exchange.

Teased about destroying the stock market, Seles said: "Oh, stop it! When I left it was at 43 points and the chairman said: `Oh, you brought the stock market up'. I am not sure he wants me back."

Seles survived a difficult first set against Labat, raising her game to win the tie-break without dropping a point. "I was probably a little bit nervous," Seles said.

Andre Agassi, who defeated the Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean 6-4, 6-1, 6-4, added to the number of of comments about the speed of the Stadium Court. "It's 42 per cent quicker than last year," Agassi said, evidently with an eye for detail. "There are a lot of guys out there that are going to like this court. Pete [Sampras] is going to like it, [Pat] Rafter is going to like it. It is going to help anybody who likes the ball a little bit lower. It's going to hurt a lot of the Spanish players."

How much help the court will be to Agassi, the No 8 seed, remains to be seen. The Las Vegan does not lack confidence. "I think I can play better here than I have played all summer," he said. "This is a city that has created some incredible memories for me. This is a court that I play well on. I love being here."