Tennis: Graf's hegemony set for a grand reward: Germany's perfectionist holds all the aces at the Australian Open, which starts on Monday

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SOME Grand Slams are grander than others, as Steffi Graf may find if she succeeds in becoming the first woman to win the four major singles championships in sequence for a second time with a triumph at the Australian Open, which starts here on Monday.

There are two reasons in particular why Graf, being a perfectionist, could feel less than comfortable on a pedestal alongside the one occupied by Rod Laver, who accomplished the Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and again in 1969 as a professional.

Firstly, Laver's two sweeps of the Australian, French, Wimbledon and United States championships were achieved in the traditional manner, within a calendar year. Graf, whose 1988 Grand Slam met this condition, is currently on target for a chronological, or modern, Grand Slam. Her unbeaten run in the majors began at the French Open last June after she had lost to Monica Seles in the Australian final in January.

Secondly, Graf's court has been a greyer place since a knife attack by a German specator, Gunther Parche, put Seles out of the game more than eight months ago. Graf's subsequent achievements have been devalued, or at least have been accompanied by asterisks noting her chief rival's absence.

This is likely to happen again if Graf justifies her top seeding during the next fortnight while Seles continues her rehabilitation on the practice courts of Florida.

The traditional Grand Slam dates back to the American Donald Budge's success in 1938, which has been emulated by one other man, Laver, and three women, Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Graf.

Though Martina Navratilova has been unable to cap her glorious career with a traditional Grand Slam, she is the only player to date to have accomplished the modern version, completed at the French Open in 1984. For this, Navratilova was rewarded with a dollars 1m bonus from the International Tennis Federation, who had offered the sum for a Grand Slam in order to induce more of the leading players to compete at the Australian Open, which was held then at the end of the year.

Navratilova went on to annex the Wimbledon and United States titles, bringing her winning sequence to six, before her bid for a traditional Grand Slam was terminated by Helena Sukova in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. The defeat also brought to a close Navratilova's modern professional record of 74 matches won in succession.

'Some purists argued that a true Grand Slam meant winning the French, Wimbledon, US Open and Australian in the same calendar year,' Navratilova wrote in her autobiography, Being Myself. She pointed out that in 1977 the Australians 'changed the emphasis somewhat' by switching the date of their championships to 'a long December haul to Down Under for the traditional Grand Slam'.

Connolly and Court won the four majors when the season began in Australia, and this was also the case when Graf achieved the Grand Slam in a calender year in 1988, the tournament having reverted to January in 1987. Navratilova's name was shamefully omitted from the brief list of Grand Slammers recited during the presentation to Graf at the US Open.

After Graf left New York's Flushing Meadow she almost immediately became the Olympic singles champion in Seoul, turning her triumphs into a 'Golden Grand Slam'. It was widely predicted that she would dominate the game for as long as she wished to continue playing.

Seles, 14 years old at the time, had left her home in Novi Sad, in what was then Yugoslavia, and was based at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Sizing up the opposition from a height of 5ft 4in, she had already slogged and grunted to a world ranking of No 84. She quickly developed to challenge and eventually supplant Graf as the No 1.

Graf and Seles have monopolised the women's singles title at the Australian Open since 1988, when the tournament moved from the grass courts of Kooyong, in the Melbourne suburbs, to the rubberised concrete courts of Flinders Park, within walking distance of the city centre. Three triumphs by Graf were followed by three by Seles, though illness caused the German to withdraw from the event in 1992.

Their first meeting at Flinders Park was in last year's final, a stirring contest of heavy-hitting baseline determination. Seles, who appeared to be losing confidence towards the end of the opening set, lasted the pace better and won, 4-6 6-3 6-2. It was her eighth Grand Slam title, Wimbledon so far having eluded her.

During the presentations Seles's stamina was likened to the legendary Australian racehorse, Phar Lap. Since the stabbing in Hamburg in April, Graf has been an odds-on favourite, winning the French, Wimbledon and United States championships to bring her haul of Grand Slam titles to 14. That said, she has not always displayed a keen sense of motivation.

In consecutive finals she was aided by the shortcomings of opponents. The American Mary Joe Fernandez was unable to capitalise on a winning position at the French Open in June, and a month later came Jana Novotna's unforgettable capitulation at Wimbledon.

A bone splinter in a foot, requiring surgery in October, contributed to Graf's lack of verve, and a back strain made the end of the 1993 season more than welcome. But, above all, she missed the stimulus of Seles's competitive edge.

The 24-year-old Graf has achieved every goal that tennis can offer, and official prize-money of nearly dollars 13m (pounds 6.16m) represents a fraction of her fortune from sponsorships and endorsements. Regaining the No 1 position, she said, brought her none of the excitement she experienced when first reaching the summit in August 1987, at the start of a record reign of 186 consecutive weeks. How could it, when an obsessive with a knife had restored her above Seles?

A similar reservation could be made with regard to the beckoning Grand Slam II. Six years ago, en route to Grand Slam I, Graf had the satisfaction of defeating the old firm, Chris Evert, in the Australian final, and Martina Navratilova, for the Wimbledon title. Success without Seles, on the other hand, has been rather muted.

WORLD NO 1'S GRAND SLAM ACCOUNT

GRAF'S THREE STEPS TO MELBOURNE

FRENCH OPEN: bt Cecilia Dahlman 7-6 6-1; Andrea Strnadova 6-1 6-1; Laura Gildemeister 6-2 6-2; Iva Majoli 6-4 7-6; Jennifer Capriati 6-3 7-5; Anke Huber 6-1 6-1; Mary Joe Fernandez 4-6 6-2 6-4.

WIMBLEDON: bt Kirrily Sharpe 6-0 6-0; Clare Wood 6-2 6-1; Helen Kelesi 6-0 6-0; Meredith McGrath 6-1 6-4; Capriati 7-6 6-1; Conchita Martinez 7-6 6-3; Jana Novotna 7-6 1-6 6-4.

US OPEN: bt Robin White 6-3 6-0; McGrath 6-3 6-1; Judith Wiesner w/o; Mary Pierce 6-1 6-0; Gabriela Sabatini 6-2 5-7 6-1; Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere 4-6 6-1 6-0; Helena Sukova 6-3 6-3.

GRAF'S 1988 GRAND SLAM

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: bt Amy Jonsson 6-3 6-1; Janine Thompson 6-0 6-1; Cammy MacGregor 6-1 6-2; Catarina Lindqvist 6-0 7-5; Hana Mandlikova 6-2 6-2; Claudia Kohde-Kilsch 6-2 6-3; Chris Evert 6-1 7-6.

FRENCH OPEN: bt Nathalie Guerree 6-0 6-4; Ronni Reis 6-1 6-0; Susan Sloane 6-0 6-1; Nathalie Tauziat 6-1 6-3; Bettina Fulco 6-0 6-1; Sabatini 6-3 7-6; Natalia Zvereva 6-0 6-0.

WIMBLEDON: bt Hu Na 6-0 6-0; Karine Quentrec 6-2 6-0; Terry Phelps 6-3 6-1; M J Fernandez 6-2 6-2; Pascale Paradis 6-3 6-1; Pam Shriver 6-1 6-2; Martina Navratilova 5-7 6-2 6-1.

US OPEN: bt Liz Minter 6-1 6-1; Manon Bollegraf 6-1 6-0; Nathalie Herreman 6-0 6-1; Patty Fendick 6-4 6-2; Katerina Maleeva 6-3 6-0; Evert w/o; Sabatini 6-3 3-6 6-1.

(Photograph omitted)

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