Tennis: Stich influence steadies German nerve

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THE red clay court at the exhibition centre here resembled a bullring yesterday as cushions rained down in celebration of a doubles victory by Michael Stich and Patrik Kuhnen that edged Germany towards a third Davis Cup triumph. They are 2- 1 up against Australia going into the final day.

Stich and Kuhnen proved marginally superior to the Australian pair, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, winning 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 in just under four hours. Australia, who have battled so gamely, can only hope that Richard Fromberg is able to dredge sufficient energy to withstand Stich's charge for the trophy in the first of today's reverse singles.

Fromberg, who saved five match points before defeating Marc Goellner on Friday, came into the tie nursing a strained muscle near his rib cage and was almost in a state of collapse after the epic.

Woodforde and Woodbridge had an opportunity to follow Fromberg's heroics by putting the Germans under more pressure, but they were unable to convert three set points in the opening set. After that, Stich and Kuhnen displayed the greater assurance, even allowing for the fact that they allowed the second set to slip and almost forfeited the fourth.

Stich double-faulted to lose his serve in the second game of the opening set, and did the same when serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set. Kuhnen saved three set points when serving at 5-6 in the first set, and the Germans won the tie-break, 7-4. It was a similar story after Stich's hiccup in the fourth set. Kuhnen held serve to force the tie-break, and again the score was 7-4.

Asked the reason why he and Kuhnen could do so well when they only played together in Davis Cup ties, whereas the 'Woodies' are doubles specialists on the tour, Stich smiled and replied: 'We're geniuses.'

Not quite, but this tie has demanded at least as much perspiration as inspiration. The opening singles matches both went to five sets, Stich eventually defeating Jason Stoltenberg before Goellner capitulated to Fromberg. Goellner's approach to the game is uncomplicated: 'I hit every ball as if it were my last one.' He may be wishing that the last touch of his first match in a Davis Cup final was precisely that.

The 23-year-old German barely managed to get his racket to a match-winning serve by Fromberg after the pair had duelled for four hours and 31 minutes on Friday night. But the damage to the German No 2 had been done earlier, and it was chiefly self-inflicted. Whatever the outcome today, Goellner is unlikely to forget the match points he failed to convert - three of them in the third set tie-break - before losing, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-2, 9-7. Nor are the German public.

DAVIS CUP Final (Dusseldorf): Germany lead Australia 2-1: Singles: M Stich (Ger) bt J Stoltenberg (Aus) 6-7 6-3 6-1 4-6 6-3; R Fromberg (Aus) bt M Goellner (Ger) 3-6 5-7 7-6 6-2 9-7. Doubles: Stich and Patrik Kuhnen (Ger) bt M Woodforde and T Woodbridge (Aus) 7-6 4-6 6-3 7-6.

Today: Stich v Fromberg; Goellner v Stoltenberg.