Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Graf turns on her title tunnel vision to crush Capriati: Set point passes unnoticed by German champion as her focus on winning a fifth singles title becomes a study in concentration

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The Independent Online
STEFFI GRAF won her 50th match on the Wimbledon lawns yesterday and a conversation which took place after she advanced to the semi-finals with a 7-6, 6-1 victory against the American teenager, Jennifer Capriati, encapsulated how concentrated the defending champion is on winning the title for a fifth time.

Interviewer: 'You had a set point against you. Were you worried at all?'

Graf: 'When did I have a set point against me?'

Interviewer: 'The first set.'

Graf: 'Did I?'

Interviewer: 'You were down 3-5, 30-40.'

Graf: 'I didn't even know. I was just taking it point by point.'

This attitude may help explain why Graf has lost only four matches at Wimbledon since she announced her arrival as a 15-year-old with a first- round win against the American Susan Mascarin, 10-8 in the third set, in 1984.

That year she lost to Britain's Jo Durie in the fourth round, 9-7 in the third set. In 1985, she lost to Pam Shriver in three sets, also in the fourth round. In 1987, Martina Navratilova defeated her in the final 7-5, 6-3, and in 1990 she lost in three sets to Zina Garrison in the semi- finals.

Another snatch of chat, later in the afternoon, after Navratilova's 6-3, 6-1 win against Natalia Zvereva, showed how keen the 36-year-old is to mark the 100th women's championships by winning the title for a 10th time.

Interviewer: 'Does it concern you, as an ambassador of the women's game, that somebody at your stage of your career and not fully fit. . .'

Navratilova: 'Excuse me?'

Interviewer: 'You mentioned your ankle injury.'

Navratilova: 'I'm still moving pretty well, aren't I? I'd take you on over a hundred yard race any time.'

If Navratilova was feeling twinges from the long-term ankle injury, Graf was troubled by her right foot. But both players were too fast on their feet and in their minds for their opponents yesterday, and the form line suggests that they will continue to stride towards the projected meeting in Saturday's final. They each have a 7-0 record against the semi-final opposition: Graf versus Conchita Martinez, of Spain; Navratilova versus Jana Novotna, of the Czech Republic.

Novotna added to Gabriela Sabatini's misery yesterday, defeating the 1991 finalist 6-4, 6-3 to advance to her first Grand Slam semi-final. The Argentinian said her performance here was not related to her defeat by Mary Joe Fernandez at the French Open, though anybody who loses a

6-1, 5-1 advantage can hardly be expected to recover in a hurry.

Tomorrow's Navratilova-Novotna match is something of a Czech triangle. Novotna is coached by Hana Mandlikova, who was defeated by Navratilova in the 1986 Wimbledon final, having beaten her celebrated former countrywoman to win the 1985 United States Open and the 1987 Australian Open. There was a time when Mandlikova would tauntingly flex her muscles behind Navratilova's back to make a point about her opponent's body-building.

Novotna also scored a point in her interview yesterday. 'No, I don't remember Martina growing up in Czechoslovakia,' she said, 'I'm too young for that.'

How many points she scores in the match remains to be seen. Observers have been saying for years that Novotna has an ideal attacking style for Wimbledon, though her previous best was a place in the quarter-finals in 1990, when she lost to Graf. She has only played doubles against Navratilova on grass.

'I think this is my most consistent year so far,' the eighth-seeded Novotna said. 'Because I know this, I will try to take as much out of this year as I can, and I am on my way.'

Wimbledon is Navratilova's spiritual home, and she, above all, knows that it takes more than good shots to succeed there. 'Sometimes it's hard to produce your best tennis at a place like this,' she said. 'You just win on heart more than on form sometimes. But they both seem to be working well. I still have the desire to play well, regardless of the tournament, but here you don't even have to work at it. If anything, I have to sort of pull back and not get too excited, because it's easy to get overwhelmed here.'

The last comment cannot be applied to the spectators at many of the women's matches so far, though the standard of play in the first set of Graf's contest with the 17-year-old Capriati was exceptional.

Capriati did, indeed, have a set point, and deservedly so after manoeuvring Graf to dominate many of the superb rallies. Deep, angled shots hit the corners of the court, and early errors on the Graf forehand enabled Capriati to break for 3-2.

In the ninth game, the American anticipated her opponent's forehand volley and passed her with a backhand. Whether or not Graf was conscious of the danger, she responded with a mighty forehand drive. Capriati could only return the ball wide across the court.

Though the match was turning against her, the American saved three set points to force the tie-break, and saved two more in the shoot-out, which she lost 7-3. Graf broke in the opening game of the second set, after which the well-being of her right foot became her chief cause for concern.

'I asked Alan Mills (the referee) to get me pain-killers,' Graf said. 'I just wanted to make sure that I would be all right if it was going to be a longer match.'

Graf was surprised that Martinez made it to the quarter-finals, let alone the last four. 'She is more of a clay- court player,' she said.

The Spaniard's victory at the Italian Open in May was confirmation of this, though she proved too smart for Helena Sukova, a natural serve-volleyer, yesterday.

The Czech briefly threatened to take the match into a third set by winning the opening two games of the second. Martinez broke back in the next game, lost her serve a second time in the fourth and then duelled through four break points and nine deuces to crack Sukova's resolve.

'I've been working on my physique and on my concentration,' Martinez said. 'I hope I can play like today and make a good match.' The spectators would say aye to that.

Hingis' hopes, Results, page 33

(Photographs omitted)

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