Tennis: Tauziat enjoying life in the shadows

A QUESTION: who was the women's Wimbledon runner-up last year? Graf? Out in the third round. Seles? Beaten in the quarter-finals. Kournikova? Don't be ridiculous.

In fact she is playing at the All England Club although, judging from the prominence she gets from the media and the Order of Play committee, you could be forgiven for not knowing it. Nathalie Tauziat is the big secret of the 1999 Championships.

You could tell that as soon as you saw where the No 8 seed had been put yesterday. Court 13 is nice enough as tennis theatres go, but the Centre Court it is not. Tucked into a far corner of the complex, if it was much more of an outside court it would belong to next door and members of Wimbledon Park Golf Club would be hacking divots out of it.

Never mind, the press seats were full. Well, they had people sat in them, even if they were not working for newspapers. "I'll clear them if more members of the media turn up," a steward said with a loud stage whisper.

He could have saved his breath and the consternation of the squatters, because few did.

Not that Tauziat minds. Last year she cut the same unobtrusive path through the field and when people noticed, she was serving against Jana Novotna as the first Frenchwoman in the final since Suzanne Lenglen in 1925.

"I don't care if I'm in the shadow," she said. "In France I was always in the shadow because I wasn't in the federation system."

Quiet in character, sober in dress you do not get the impression that Tauziat has a dress designer working on her court gear. Or if he is, it is a masterpiece of understatement. A simple shirt and schoolgirl-like skirt, she has fewer labels on her clothes than most of the crowd, who were bedecked with ticks and stripes. Only her play set her apart from most park players.

If Anna Kournikova had beaten Seda Noorlander 6-1, 6-1 in 51 minutes the attention might have centred on her tennis for a change, for Tauziat the indifference was profound.

"I don't mind," she said with a smile that belied her Mrs Grumpy image. "If they want to put me on Court 13 every match it will be fine. It's a good court. I just do things my way. I don't care if nobody pays attention."

They did not but perhaps they should have done because you would have had to go a long way to find better grass court tennis than Tauziat's yesterday. A finalist at Edgbaston and Eastbourne in the past three weeks, she is the form horse playing at the highest world rank - eighth - of her career.

From the start it was clear she had far too much variety in thought and stroke for Noorlander, whose passing physical resemblance to Steffi Graf from a distance soon disappears when you see the unforced errors. At 3- 0 down in a matter of minutes, you were left wondering how the 24-year- old Dutch woman had defeated Jennifer Capriati in the previous round.

The opening set was rattled off in 25 minutes even though Tauziat was only landing 38 per cent of her first serves. When she broke again and again in the next you would have put your house on the outcome if it had been almost anyone else with a 6-1, 4-1 lead.

Tauziat, after all, managed to lose from 6-0, 3-0 up against Natasha Zvereva in Eastbourne last weekend and with a history of similar collapses she would have a similar profile to Jana Novotna if she blubbed like the Czech. With her it truly is French without tears.

Defeats like the one inflicted by Zvereva leave scars on some players but Tauziat would have none of it.

"I didn't have the time to think about Eastbourne so it didn't affect me," she said. "I finished there on Saturday and I was playing at Wimbledon on Monday. My attitude is that it was a good result because I could have gone out in the quarter- or semi-finals.

"I must have had a good reaction because I'm in the second week and I'm very pleased about my game. I feel confident. It's so far so good."

She is in the fourth round now and only three matches away from a second appearance in the final. Not that anyone has noticed.