Tennis: Stich in time for Wimbledon

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The Independent Online
WHILE just about every other male contender has had a spanner thrown into his Wimbledon preparations, things are going smoothly for the 1991 champion Michael Stich. Yesterday he reached the final of the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club by beating Jamie Morgan, of Australia, 5-7, 6-4, 8-6.

Smoothly, but not entirely danger free. The unseeded Morgan had defeated Stefan Edberg in the quarter-finals and he almost had another Wimbledon champion to add to his list of victims. The Australian, who is ranked 83rd in the world and whose pre-Queen's preparation consisted of four first-round losses, had four match points in the third set but could not convert them.

'He was a tough opponent,' Stich said. 'He served well and he was aggressive with his volleying. The ball was always very deep, right by the baseline, which gave me no time to hit good returns. I found it very difficult to break him.' The difference between the players proved to be Stich's finishing. He had only two break points, and converted both.

The match turned on the 12th game of the third set. Morgan, a 23-year-old son of surf-shop owners who live near Bondi Beach, let slip his quartet of chances, the disappointment from which propelled him to defeat. Back from the brink, Stich won three games in succession to squeeze through for a final today against Wayne Ferreira, the reigning champion and seventh seed.

'The advantage is normally with the server on grass,' Stich said, 'but when there are four match points the chances are about 50-50. I saved a couple of points with aces but two or three times I had to win with my second serve. I took a bit of a risk and went for it with those serves.'

The climax was in contrast to what had gone before as the majority of the match could have been used as a propaganda vehicle for anyone wishing to dig up the Queen's Centre Court to lay down clay. The serve normally dominates on the lightning fast lawns but this was a case of rampant megalomania. Morgan had to wait until the 10th game before he took a point out of the thunderbolts that were coming his way while Stich did not get a break point until 10 games later.

As a result the tennis was almost as one-sided as a contest between a rifle and a target. Just occasionally the receiver managed to not only get a racket on the ball but propel it over the net as well. His reward, however, would be a crushing volley flying past him. Most rallies lasted three shots; hardly any point was stretched beyond five seconds.

So quite how Stich managed to lose the first set was baffling. A tie-break seemed the natural conclusion as the sixth seed began serving at 6-5 down but he delivered a double-fault at deuce - there were only three games to reach this potentially exciting equilibrium - and then put a backhand into the net. It was the first set he had surrendered in the tournament.

He made amends by breaking Morgan at 4-4 for the decisive point of the second set, and then held his nerve in the third as his relatively unknown opponent had his opportunities.

As for his prospects at Wimbledon, Stich is determinedly upbeat. He says he is near, or at, his best form and more comfortable without the responsibility of returning as defending champion. The men he expects to be contenders at Wimbledon were the usual suspects. 'I would expect the semi-finalists to come from a small group. I would be very surprised if they didn't come from Edberg, Becker, Ivanisevic, Sampras or Krajicek.'

And himself? 'I didn't say I'd get that far,' he replied, but he smiled as though he expected to.

For his part, Ferreira had to overcome the rapidly improving American Todd Martin and declining light to win 6-7, 6-3, 7-5. The South African has never met Stich before but their games will hardly come as bolts from the blue to each other as they are doubles and practice partners.

Their meeting today brings with it a web of fixture congestion. They will meet for the pounds 55,484 first prize in the singles and then return to the court to face the Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde in the semi-finals of the doubles. Successful there, and the final will be their third match of the day.

(Photograph omitted)