Tennis: Kournikova holds off a histrionic Graf

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The Independent Online
WHILE LOSING to Anna Kournikova yesterday, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, Steffi Graf cried out in exasperation, "Is anybody watching this game here?" Everybody was - her duel with the 17-year-old Russian was compelling stuff, one of the best women's matches for ages - but not to Graf's satisfaction.

As far as the seven-times Wimbledon champion was concerned, the line judges were not paying close enough attention during her quarter-final at the Direct Line Insurance Championships, and she asked for them to be substituted. "You try to have a professional approach, and you expect this from the umpires as well," Graf said. "There were too many wrong calls. You expect a few mistakes, but not that many."

Graf was not placated when told by an official that it was possible to reposition one judge, but not two. "One judge is nothing," she said. "It was not only the service line but the baseline as well. They didn't do the job." After a short pause, Graf added: "I didn't do the job, either."

In that respect, she was being rather hard on herself. Still short of match practice after missing the best part of a year as a result of injuries to her left leg, Graf competed impressively for two hours against one of the the most exciting prospects in the sport, a player 12 years her junior.

Kournikova, a Wimbledon semi-finalist last year, has improved her grass- court skills almost beyond recognition, one of the benefits of working with Graf's former coach, Pavel Slozil. Not only was she able to match Graf forehand for forehand, but she also showed a refreshing inclination to approach the net and volley confidently.

Graf defeated Kournikova, 6-2, 6-1, in their previous match in the last 16 at the 1996 United States Open, but, as the Russian reminded us yesterday: "I was 14 and she was the No 1, and nobody could beat her then."

Following her victory yesterday, Kournikova visited hospital for a check- up after her hurting her racket hand in a fall during the seventh game of the final set. On returning to Devonshire Park, she withdrew from the doubles but otherwise smiled away any worries. "How's the hand?" she said to reporters. "Haven't you anything else to say to me, like congratulations?"

Graf's rare display of histrionics underlined how keen she is to make an impressive comeback at Wimbledon. As early as the fourth game of the match, she turned towards spectators at the back of the court and said: "Are you able to see that call?" There was a chorus of "Yes" and a good deal of laughter.

Kournikova, broken when serving for the first set at 5-4, lost the subsequent tie-break, 7-4. Although broken again, double-faulting three times when serving for the second set, at 5-1, she had built enough confidence to absorb the set-back.

During the second game of the final set, a Kournikova smash struck Graf on her racket hand, hurting her right thumb. That appeared to be the least of her concerns. In the fifth game, after breaking back for 2-2, Graf was incensed by a call, saying to the umpire: "Come on, it's not possible here."

A scream of "No!" echoed around the Centre Court after a Graf forehand down the line was ruled out, giving Kournikova a break point at 4-4. "Come on, that's enough. There are too many mistakes here," Graf said to Brenda Perry, the WTA tour director, who was standing in the entrance to the court.

Graf then double-faulted on a second break point. Finally, frustrated by a call which denied her a 40-0 lead when Kournikova was serving for the match at 5-4, Graf shouted: "Come on, it's a joke here." The play was hugely entertaining, too.

n Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, one of only three seeds surviving in the Nottingham Open, reached the quarter-finals yesterday when he defeated South Africa's Grant Stafford 6-2, 6-3 in 70 minutes. Only three matches started on another day badly affected by rain.