Tennis: McNeil's historic victory ends Graf's title reign: Wimbledon '94: Women's singles champion is knocked out in first round by unseeded American after failing to adjust to windy conditions

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The Independent Online
NEWS that Steffi Graf had made history on a tennis court normally would be greeted with a shrug. The difference yesterday was that she recorded a first by losing rather than winning.

Never before had a defending champion been eliminated in her opening match of the Wimbledon women's singles championship; indeed, the unthinkable has only happened once in the men's event, when Manuel Santana fell to Charlie Pasarell in 1967.

Graf was defeated yesterday by Lori McNeil, a 30-year-old who learned to play on the park courts of Houston Texas in the company of Zina Garrison, the only other player to prevent the German from lifting the title in the past six years.

McNeil's 7-5, 7-6 triumph, which should add an extra bounce of ambition to every contender, was accomplished in an hour and 43 minutes spread over nearly five hours by rain delays. The weather had not interrupted the championships since Monica Seles last played, muted by the gruntometer fiasco and overwhelmed by Graf in the 1992 women's singles final, so it came as something of a shock to the system when June turned into October on midsummer's day.

Nobody was more badly shaken than Graf, though she admitted that she was troubled less by the showers and the gusty conditions than by her own shortcomings and the shots of her confident opponent. 'She played better than me, that's very obvious,' Graf said. 'She served much better. I had trouble with my serves, and I just didn't have a very good time.'

Little more than three weeks had elapsed since Graf's comprehensive defeat by Mary Pierce in the semi-finals of the French Open, and this is the first occasion she has lost matches back-to-back on the tour since being beaten by Wendy Turnbull in the fourth round of the Australian Open in December, 1984, and by Britain's Jo Durie in the first round of the Virginia Slims of Florida in January, 1985.

Asked what she would do to overcome the lastest disappointment, she said: 'I'll think about it in the next few days - I'm not going to kill myself, though.' The response was reminiscent of Boris Becker's reaction after losing to the Australian Peter Doohan in the second round in 1987 ('It's only a tennis match, nobody died').

Only once before has a No 1 seed lost her opening match at Wimbledon. In 1962, Margaret Smith (now Court), who was given a bye in the first round, was ambushed in three sets by Billie Jean Moffitt (now King), who was making her first appearance at the championships.

Last time a top seed was beaten in the opening round of a Grand Slam championship was in 1979, when Virginia Ruzici lost to Mary Sawyer at the Australian Open.

The threat to Graf was apparent the moment McNeil was drawn to play her. Ranked No 22 in the world, and with a serve and volley style better suited to the Wimbledon lawns than a quarter-final in 1986 conveyed. She arrived well prepared, having successfully defended her Edgbaston title and played two competitive matches at Eastbourne. 'When I found out I was playing Steffi it kind of took away my concentration last week,' she said, 'but once I was out of the (Eastbourne) tournament I was able to focus on the challenge.'

Moreover, McNeil was the last player to eliminate Graf in the first round of a tournament, at Madison Square Garden in November, 1992, having lost her previous eight matches against the German.

Murmurs spread around the Centre Court when the champion's serve was broken for 0-2 in the opening set, but this was the prelude to three further service breaks followed by the first rain break after 38 minutes, with the score at 5-5.

When play resumed nearly and hour and a half later, McNeil continued to direct the majority of her serves to her opponent's backhand, deep enough and with sufficient pace to deny Graf time to run around and return on the forehand.

The American held for 6-5, and then created two set points. After saving the first with an impressive cross-court backhand, Graf double-faulted, hitting her first serve long and netting the second.

Graf, 25, was only 16 and competing on the lawns for the second time when she last conceded more games in the opening set of a first- round match, losing a tie-break to the American, Spain Short, in 1985.

On that occasion, the German went on to win, and it seemed a similar scenario might evolve when she broke for 2-1 in the second set and was leading 3-2 when the rain started again.

The second delay, of an hour and 43 minutes, did not seem to have affected Graf's confidence when they returned to the court at 6.20pm. She held serve, and went on to create a set point at 5-3. McNeil saved it with her second ace of the match, and broke to level at 5-5, Graf netting a backhand when put under pressure by again missing a first serve.

Both players were vulnerable to attack when it came to the tie- break, and Graf hastened her defeat by netting a smash from close range and then double-faulting to go 4-3 down. McNeil capitalised, and though Graf saved two match points, McNeil produced a confident backhand volley to win the shoot-out, 7-5.

As Graf said, the conditions were the same for both players, and McNeil realised that she had to block everything out of her mind except driving the balls beyond the reach of her opponent. 'When I warmed up this morning it was very windy, but when it's windy you can't really focus on the conditions,' she said. 'I made my mind up not to let it bother me. A big part of my strategy was to make her pass me off the backhand side. Everyone knows Steffi has a great forehand and if I had the choice I would rather go to her backhand.'

Asked how the rain delays affected her she said: 'The first one was kind of difficult, but they were so long that we had a chance to kind of settle down. It was like starting all over, with the warm-up and everything.'

'After today, I have to put this aside and focus on my next match,' McNeil said. I won't think about this match.' That would seem to be the course to follow if she is to make further headway, though Graf expressed doubts that McNeil could go all the way to the final.

'That's her opinion,' McNeil said. 'I'm not going to say. But we'll see.'

Graf, at 2-5, was the hottest ever pre-tournament favourite. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the No 2 seed, has taken over at 3-1, but the title is there for the taking, as Jana Novotna, who blew her chances in last year's final, and Martina Navratilova, who would dearly love to leave with No 10, will be well aware.