Tennis: Relief for Graf in first test on grass

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The Independent Online
WHEN TROUBLE has followed you like a small, ravenous dog, any respite is embraced and Steffi Graf clung happily to a trifle. Normally a 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 win in the second round of the DFS Classic at Edgbaston Priory would barely merit mention in a glittering curriculum vitae, yesterday it marked a welcome and significant step forward.

A year to the day since the seven-times Wimbledon champion had a career- threatening operation on her left knee, it was her first win on a grass court since the German triumphed at the All England club in 1996. A trifle? The relief that she could still knock a ball round a court was profound.

At the end, after 111 minutes' play had helped clear the cobwebs of doubt, Graf embraced her opponent, Rennae Stubbs, who also lost eight months to injury, and a grin lit up her face. Maybe, with her 29th birthday on Sunday, there is still some time before the clock stops ticking on her tennis.

"Physically and mentally I feel fine," she said. What was her goal now? "Just to play at Wimbledon," she replied. An eighth title, after three months away from the sport and with barely any matches for a year, was too grand an ambition to conceive.

"The ball was bouncing low and when we started I was thinking `oh my God, this is going to be difficult'. But the reason why I came here was to get in situations where it's going to get close. Anything could have happened out there.''

Anything that has happened to Graf recently has not been benign and it is a mark of her travails that this week she fell off the WTA computer completely. You have to compete in at least three tournaments to get a ranking and she had managed only two brief stays at Hanover and Indian Wells. Add the problem of her father's three-year spell in prison for tax evasion, and the picture of an erstwhile champion under a cloud is complete.

Cloud was the pertinent word as rain, intermittent but heavy, kept Graf off court until 3.45pm and reduced the crowd. As she arrived 300 pairs of eyes were drawn to her left knee, which would have had enough strapping to have won the professional respect of an Ancient Egyptian undertaker had her opponent not sported an even more impressive bandage. We were watching the battle of wounded knee.

Two double-faults were conceded in Graf's first service game while her forehand, once the most feared stroke in women's tennis, alternated between thumping accuracy and limp waywardness.

At one point she exhaled with frustration, at another, when she finally found her range with her first serve, she whooped with ironic delight. She was like an old steam engine groaning into action after months of inaction. You could almost see the rust being rubbed off her.

Stubbs is possibly Graf's closest friend on the tour and is a regular practice partner, which is fine when you are blowing hot but less so when the person knows your game intimately enough to prey on weakness. The Australian broke twice, the second time crucially to 30, taking the first set 7-5 in 48 minutes.

Graf took the next 6-2 and then broke in the first game of the third when Stubbs served a double fault at break point. By the finish smiles had replaced the frowns and the frustration. "It was a pretty good match wasn't it," she said to her opponent.

Five aces had not compensated for 12 double faults but Graf had won on her favourite surface. The last time her opponent was Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in a Wimbledon final, yesterday it was herself.

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