Tennis: Wimbledon - Graf on awesome upward path

IT WAS difficult to know whether we were reading Wimbledon's order of play yesterday or a list of names from an agony aunt's post bag. Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati: throw up a difficulty that you could possibly get in, in what ought be the cosseted tennis life, and they have probably had it.

Tears have fallen like Capriati's ranking from all three in recent years, and if only Jana Novotna had been on court we would have had the full complement of the Blues Sisters. Yesterday it was a case of no woman, no cry, however, as the tearful trio kept back the moisture, safely negotiating matches.

Graf's most recent worry has been her health. On Monday she broke down in a press conference as she related that injury after injury had piled up on her so that she thought her playing days were over. Some crock. Yesterday the crowd was left wondering what might have been if only we had watched Fraulein Forehand at a good time. Against Henrieta Nagyova she was awesome.

In theory the world No. 23 ought to have fancied her chances against anyone who is coming back from a year away from the game but Graf is not anyone, and the convalescence is being conducted at a level that only the best can live with. The first set was not so much a mis-match as a massacre.

Nagyova, from Slovakia, looked confident in the knock-up - Graf's left knee is suspect after all, and it has been well documented that her game is rusty after her lay-off. It was only when the balls had to be hit over the net for real that the problems began.

First serve and, bang, the return was past Nagyova before she had time to blink. Graf was hitting the ball so early you could swear she was getting to them during the toss-up. The first service game was lost to love, the first set also to love in 20 minutes. Just nine points had been surrendered.

You can rarely keep that kind of form going, even if you are Steffi Graf, and the second set was closer. The German's serve was not functioning like it can but even so a 6-0, 6-4 victory was clinched in 58 minutes. This time there was no overflow of water.

"I guess I was anxious to play and pretty nervous in the days before my first-round match," Graf said. "The emotions were going. I've calmed down a little bit since then."

No interview with Graf is complete without a medical bulletin and she duly obliged. "I have no problem, not at all," she said. "It's been great the past few weeks that I've been able to practise the way I want to. Running side to side without any pain."

How long would it be before she is back to her best? "Let's say it will take a couple of weeks," she said, a reply that would have earned a quizzical look from yesterday's beaten opponent.

Seles, the sixth seed, has been on an emotional roller-coaster too, since her father died just before the French Open. She harnessed her hurt then to reach the final and yesterday she safely cruised past France's Alexandra Fusai 6-1, 6-1.

Fusai won the first game of the match on her serve and then stood in the face of the hurricane as Seles thumped winner after winner past her. Such slaughter was supposed to have ended when the Romans got bored with Christians versus the lions.

The main women's casualty yesterday was Amanda Coetzer, who glories in various nicknames including the "little assassin" or the "mighty atom", all of which seem to overstate her prowess, as she has only a couple of Australian Open semi-finals to her name at the age of 26.

The South African ninth seed certainly imploded yesterday. She won her first set against Japan's Naoko Sawamatsu, then the forcing ground-strokes started to come back at her with interest and she lost 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who defeated Monica Seles in the French Open final two weeks ago, had a scare, but not the lingering sort that stopped Coetzer. The Spaniard lost the first set 7-5 to Romania's Catalina Cristea before she pulled rank and won the next two 6-2, 6-0.

There was no such alarm for Lindsay Davenport, the woman who is seeded second - although no one seems to have noticed, such has been the focus on Graf, Seles and Hingis. She beat Larissa Neiland 6-1, 7-5.

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