Tennis / Wimbledon '92: Graf frees her dynamic spirit: Grunt expectations quickly disappear as Seles sees a grand plan swept away in the English rain and German hurricane: John Roberts on the day a runaway teenager met her match in a court drama

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The Independent Online
MONICA SELES'S parents were late back to their seats after the second leg of a grand slam of rain delays which marred the women's singles final on Saturday. They missed the highlight of their daughter winning a rally and then holding serve by luring Steffi Graf to hit a forehand over the baseline.

Karolj and Esther returned towards the conclusion of the next game, just as Graf hit a smash for 40-0 followed by an unreturnable serve to take a 2-1 lead in the second set. Nothing had changed.

Monica was muzzled all right. No Slam, no crash, bang wallop, and barely a grunt as the world No 1 was pounded by the magnificent Graf between the pitter-patter of the rain in one of the longest short finals on record. The actual playing time was 58 minutes. This was spread over five hours and 21 minutes, with four interruptions. For Seles, it must have seemed an eternity.

Not even in Graf's stellar year of 1988, when she accomplished the 'Golden Slam' of the four majors and the Olympic title, did the German play more brilliantly in consecutive matches than she did in straight sets here against Gabriela Sabatini in the semi-finals and Seles in the final to defend successfully the championship.

Seles was 15 when she previously played Graf at Wimbledon, winning only one game in the fourth round in 1989. Saturday's defeat, 6-2, 6-1, was her worst in any match since, and she was disappointed to have improved her performance against Graf on grass by a mere two games. Sabatini, defeated 6-3, 6-3 on Friday, was also dismayed, having twice served for the championship against Graf in last year's final.

Sabatini and Seles discovered that Graf, emotionally, is a player transformed. Gone is the strained, world-weary demeanour that marked so many of her performances in major championships during the period when family problems drained her desire to play and her confidence when she did.

Seles was served notice of Graf's revitalised form and spirit in Paris a month earlier, when stretched to retain her French Open title, 10-8 in the final set. Though thoroughly dejected by losing after coming so close, Graf managed to persuade herself to be encouraged by the manner of her recovery after being out-manoeuvred and out-hit in the opening set.

The surprising aspect of her fourth Wimbledon triumph was the sudden dip in her form midway through the tournament, when she dropped the opening set in consecutive matches, against the South African, Mariaan de Swardt, ranked 76, and the American, Patty Fendick, ranked 68. A straight-sets win against Natalia Zvereva, ranked 30, restored Graf's faith, though it was still remarkable that the No 3 and No 1 seeds should then become cannon-fodder for her forehand.

The weight, accuracy and consistency of her serve gave her an advantage, fitness and athleticism did the rest. The subdued Seles always seemed to be given a fraction less time to play her shots than she requires on this surface.

For years, experts have tended to frown upon the way Graf sprints around her backhand to boom the forehand, using the backhand to slice defensively. Ideally, a top-spin or driven backhand would have increased the scope of her dominance. In theory, this was true, but the player's resistance to altering her natural style made it impracticable.

The emphasis has changed since her father, Peter, hired the Swiss coach, Heinz Gunthardt, at the end of last year. 'I didn't work too much on the forehand and the backhand, but on the mental side,' Gunthardt said. 'I told her to concentrate on her strengths.'

Peter Graf made a surprise appearance at his daughter's celebration party on Saturday night. Though advised not to fly because of a stress condition, he watched the match on television in Germany and decided to congratulate his daughter in person.

Seles's strengths - hard, low, cross-court shots and an unquenchable spirit - were not in evidence. Her confidence, shaken by Graf's attacking style, evaporated when she was unable to convert two break points in the seventh game, and she was unable to come up with an alternative game plan during the delays.

'Steffi played an excellent match and never let me get into my rhythm,' Seles said. There was no prospect of her finding a rhythm when only 55 per cent of her first serves were landing in the court.

No matter how precarious the points became, Seles endeavoured to keep her vow of silence. How much this affected her performance is hard to determine. Seles refused to offer the pressure she has been under to curb her noise as an excuse. Graf wondered if it may have contributed to the one-sided nature of of the contest.

'I think there was so much talk about that grunting, or whatever, that maybe it got to her a little bit,' the German said. 'There is a good chance. It was just repeated every day. Probably that riled her a bit, I could imagine.'

Riled, or disheartened? Whatever, Seles prepared to return to Florida to catch up on her schooling, the sequence of successful Grand Slam matches curtailed at 41.

It was only the 26th defeat of her professional career, her third of the year. The difference between this one and the previous two is that they happened in less important tournaments - and she grunted all the way to the last point against Jennifer Capriati in the quarter-finals in Key Biscayne, Florida (6-2, 7-6) and against Sabatini in the final of the Italian Open in Rome (7-5, 6-4).

We must now wait to see how Seles handles the defence of her United States Open title in New York at the end of August. One thing in her favour, apart from the cement courts, is that the crowds tend to make such a racket at Flushing Meadow that a few grunts may pass unnoticed.

(Photographs omitted)

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