Tennis: Schnyder outsmarts a faltering legend

Tennis: Latest young Swiss pretender overcomes initial nerves to expose Graf's backhand flaw
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By John Roberts at Flushing Meadow

PATTY SCHNYDER was asked if there is no real fear of Steffi Graf anymore. The question was a sharp reminder that 10 years have elapsed since the great German accomplished a unique "Golden Grand Slam", adding the Olympic title to a sweep of the four major championships. Graf was aged 20 at the time, Schnyder nine.

"The Other Swiss" - as the 11th-seeded Schnyder is known alongside her celebrated compatriot, Martina Hingis - outsmarted Graf, 6-3, 6-4, to reach the quarter-finals of the United States Open. Her opponent is Jana Novotna, the Wimbledon champion.

Schnyder, who has won more WTA singles titles (five) this year than any of her rivals, considered the question of Graf's aura. "It's hard to tell," she said, "because I didn't play against her when she won all those tournaments. I think there is a lot of respect for her, but I think fear is not the right word."

Until Sunday night, Schnyder knew Graf only by reputation. Form suggested the German was beginning to find her stride again after losing to Natasha Zvereva in the third round at Wimbledon following a year of rehabilitation from leg injuries. On the eve of the US Open, Graf defeated Lindsay Davenport and Novotna in winning a WTA Tour event in New Haven.

Graf, seeded No 8, was taken to three sets in her opening match here by the American Corina Morariu, then breezed through the next two rounds against Marlene Weingartner, a compatriot, and Mirjana Lucic, the promising young Croat.

Schnyder said she was "really nervous at the beginning of the match, and terribly nervous near the end". Her anxiety was eased by a simple game plan - a consistent left-handed serve kicking wide on Graf's backhand - helped by Graf's errors. The first set was over after just 23 minutes, Graf managing to stretch the second to 36 minutes.

Novotna is another player who tends to slice her returns. "In the last match we played she had a lot of problems with the serve on the backhand," Schnyder recalled, "but then she was able to adapt. I'm happy that we don't play on grass."

Graf, while acknowledging Schnyder's talent and potential, added, "What sets her apart from the top players right now is that she doesn't really hit the ball that hard. She uses the court extremely well, but to beat the top players you need to be capable of really going for your shots, too."

So whither Graf? "When I started playing my first tournaments in England this year, I had no expectations whatsoever, and that hasn't changed very much," she said. "There are good and bad moments, but in general I've been pretty happy the way it's been going."

The elimination of Marcelo Rios, the Chilean No 2 seed, by Sweden's Magnus Larsson, has opened the lower half of the men's singles draw even wider, and Britain's Tim Henman, the No 13 seed, is a contender for a place in the quarter-finals.

Mark Philippoussis, Henman's fourth-round opponent, tried to put the situation in perspective. "There are no easy matches here," the big-serving Australian said. "I'll definitely be up for it. I'm sure he will be, too. Anything can happen."

Henman has played Philippoussis, ranked No 22, twice before, defeating him in 1996 on a concrete court in Sydney, 6-4, 6-2, in the second round, and losing in the semi-finals of last year's indoor event in Basle, 7- 6, 6-4. "If the conditions are the same [as on Sunday], then it won't be easy, whoever I play," said Henman, who partly blamed a tricky wind for his "ugly tennis" in defeating Michael Kohlmann, a German qualifier, in the third round.

Rios, the world No 1 on two occasions this year, was unable to raise his game against Larsson, who defeated him, 6-1, 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. "He didn't beat me," Rios contended. "I made a lot of errors. I'll take a week off and start practising again. I've got to work harder."

The training sessions will be supervised by a new coach. Rios has parted from Larry Stefanki, who used to help John McEnroe. Larsson next plays Germany's Oliver Gross in a match that guarantees at least one unseeded quarter-finalist.