Tennis: Graf's sad exit may not be final

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The Independent Online
AT 4.12PM precisely at Wimbledon, where keeping time has been a problem during a week of rain, Steffi Graf gave a little wave to the crowd with her left hand as she walked off the Centre Court. The seven-times champion was unable to say whether it was a gesture of farewell, or merely auf wiedersehen.

Unlike her compatriot Boris Becker, who announced his retirement from the Grand Slam championships on leaving the great arena after losing to Pete Sampras in the quarter-finals last year, Graf kept her options open.

"It's a long year right now," she said. "I definitely couldn't say right now at the point. It would be nice to play [here] again, and hopefully be in different shape and enjoy myself. But I've learned enough to take what's coming next. So I don't know."

While it would be inappropriate to suggest that any player ought be singled out to put paid to Graf's Wimbledon campaign - perhaps for ever - if any opponent deserved a break against the great German it was Nastasha Zvereva.

Ten years ago, following their first match, which happened to be the final of the French Open, Zvereva was finally reduced to tears in the interview room after attempting to put a brave face on a 6-0, 6-0 defeat in little more than 30 minutes, one of the swiftest executions in the history of the sport.

Matters hardly improved for the elegant but inconsistent player from Belarus when Graf crossed her court, usually with a booming forehand. Before yesterday, Graf led their head-to-head 17-0. Zvereva, moreover, had won only three of the 37 sets played.

Nobody beats Zvereva 18 times, to paraphrase Vitas Gerulaitis and Brad Gilbert, both of whom used the quote in reference to a nemesis of their own.

So what made the difference yesterday, when Zvereva prevailed, 6-4, 7- 5 after 77 minutes? The answer is a combination of Zvereva's self-belief and Graf's lack of it.

For once, Zvereva played against Graf as if she was determined to give it her best without worrying about the consequences. Her game was smart, one of steady serving, accurate, penetrating groundstokes at the precise moment and low backhand slices which were a match for Graf's at her best.

The performance was similar to the one Zvereva gave in making the 18- year-old American Venus Williams look more of a novice than she is on grass when they met at Eastbourne, en route to the All England Club.

Graf, nervous throughout, as indicated by six double-faults, was unable to break her opponent's serve. Indeed, she managed to create only three break points: one during the second game of the match, and the other two as Zvereva served to win it.

There was drizzle in the air as Zvereva hit a backhand to the corner of the court to convert her second break point in the opening game, having missed the first by directing a forehand wide. The affect such an early success had on her game - and also on Graf's - was crucial to what unfolded, Graf becoming increasingly unsure of herself, Zvereva realising that a long-awaited victory was there for the taking - so long as she did not keep reminding herself of the fact.

Graf saved the first set point when serving at 5-3, Zvereva contributing to the the reprieve by netting a forehand. Zvereva left little margin for error on the second opportunity in the next game, hitting an unreturnable serve to secure the set after only 33 minutes.

Although Graf's form showed a distinct improvement after she managed to hold serve to love in the opening game of of the second set, she remained unable to exert sufficient pressure for Zvereva to feel under any sort of real threat until the concluding game.

By that time, Zvereva had made the breakthrough, 6-5, Graf's game having become as sombre as the clouds overhead. She belted a wild forehand wide to present her opponent with two break points, and netted a backhand on the second after Zvereva returned a serve.

"I didn't play my best out there," Graf said. "I started off really nervously, didn't move very well around the court, and didn't return very well. I didn't really find a way to go for my shots, and at the important points I didn't play well at all."

Having played comparatively little competitive tennis since undergoing surgery to her left knee after last year's French Open, Graf is clearly finding it difficult to slip back into her customary dominating mode.

"I haven't really been very relaxed the last few days," she said. "I've not been feeling very comfortable out there. Every time I went on the court, I played nervously in the beginning and I didn't feel my rhythm at all. So my problem is pretty clear, it's lack of match practice."

Zvereva said, "I think it's by far the best match of my life. I was mentally tough on every point and I don't think that has ever happened before. I can drift in and out of matches easily, but this time I stayed with it."

Shortly before declaring herself fit for Wimbledon, the 29-year-old Graf had expressed fears that persistent injury problems might force her to retire. She has won 21 Grand Slam singles titles, three short of the record held by Australia's Margaret Court.

Whether her body will stand up to further punishment remains to be seen, but for the moment she intends to play on, hoping to sharpen her fitness and form in time for the United States Open at the end of August.

"I've got exhibitions in about two weeks or so, and I'll see from then on. I've got San Diego and some other tournaments planned. I'll just play from match to match."