Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Davenport makes it her day

Women's final: American rises to world No 1 as Graf announces All England farewell
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APOCALYPSE NOW did not happen in the United States yesterday, but an American ended the world for Steffi Graf. After losing the final of the women's singles to Lindsay Davenport the seven-times champion said she would not be coming back to Wimbledon.

If Graf had won she might have continued in the hope of emulating Martina Navratilova's nine titles, but in the wake of a 6-4, 7-5 defeat she was in touch with her 30 years, her long spells fighting injury, and her dwindling powers. The mantle as the best player in the world had passed over the net to her opponent.

"I won't be back," she said with stark finality. "I will not comment on anything other than that." Like her German compatriot Boris Becker, she was passing from Wimbledon present into Wimbledon history.

If the enormity of what was happening had been known to Davenport her reaction might have been greater still, but when Graf netted her return after 1hr 15min of play it was as if the lights had just gone on at a surprise party. Her hand came across her mouth just too late to cut off a scream and she struggled over whether to giggle or cry. A champion was coming to terms with her new identity.

"I was in shock more than anything." Davenport, who is now the holder of the US Open and Wimbledon titles, added: "I didn't know what to do. After struggling for a couple of years here, to win, to not lose a set to beat Graf and [Jana] Novotna, who are the best grass court players we have, all of that combined just makes it an amazing win."

On Graf's retirement, she added: "She's probably the greatest that's ever played, but at the same time it's really cool that she's been able to go out on her own. She's choosing when she wants to go and I think that's how we'd all like to end our career."

A perfectly-timed ending for Graf, and Davenport's game was also close to perfection. The 23-year-old Californian had only two break points and took them both. Her serve yielded only one double fault, and if she did make any unforced errors they were forgotten in the flurry of powerful ground strokes that peppered the lines.

Her mind, too, was as strong as her crashing forehand. In the last game, when she was serving for the match, she missed with her first serve only once and twice she fired aces past Graf's despairing lunges.

"The most unbelievable thing is that I was not nervous," Davenport said. "It was so bizarre. To serve an ace at 30-15 was really big and, although I missed my first match point, I hit a great first serve and it was over."

Davenport, who had not got past the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in six attempts before this year, grasped the initiative from the start. Lost tribes in the Amazon forest know you have to attack Graf's backhand, but knowing that is very different from practising it when the barrage coming from the opposite wing puts the emphasis on defence rather than attack. The American simply hit harder, and after three deuces she broke in the first game with a backhand of considerable grandeur down the line.

Normally Graf, whose left thigh was bandaged because of a slight strain, can ride these punches because her returns put her opponent's serve at risk. But, after missing a break point in the next game, Davenport was about as shaky as the bronze statue of Fred Perry.

"She served really well," Graf said. "It was difficult for me to figure out where she was going. She had me guessing and she didn't make a lot of unforced errors. She didn't give me too many easy points."

The first set was wrapped up in 32 minutes when Graf netted a backhand, but the German appeared to be gathering momentum at 5-4 up in the second when her forward motion dissipated with a rain interruption of 30 minutes. Decisively, it allowed Davenport to reflect on her position.

"It helped me calm down," she said. "I could relax and look at the situation and think `My gosh, I'm doing so well. I'm so close. I can do this.' You don't have time to think on court. It's going so fast."

They began playing again at 1.37pm and within 10 minutes Davenport had taken three games and victory. The break point for 6-5 was a cameo of the whole match, a thumping forehand cross court that Graf, running and stretching, just managed to contact enough to snick it into the back canvas.

Davenport's initial bewilderment gave way to an outpouring of touchy- feely joy. She threw her arms round Graf, hugged the referee, Alan Mills, embraced the Venus Rosewater Dish and she was able to cherish the pounds 409,500 winner's cheque in the privacy of the locker room. The Duchess of Kent, who was showered with Novotna's tears last year, surprisingly had a moisture- free afternoon.

"The Duchess told me: `That's amazing. We're so proud of you. That was a great win'," Davenport said. "The rest I was probably spacing out on. But she was very, very sweet. That's one of the special things about Wimbledon. There's no speeches, there's no microphones, it's just you, the trophy and the crowd."

Another Wimbledon speciality is the Champions Dinner, however, and just about the only thing Davenport did wrong yesterday was to have nothing to wear for last night. "Last year I had a dress but this time I was packing, I was late for my flight and my mum says, `The final is on Saturday, if you win you can buy one on the Sunday'. Someone is trying to find me one now."

Davenport had her frock to find, Graf a new life. She left Centre Court quietly, no waves, no tears, no standing ovations. "It was her day," she said, "and I wanted to keep it that way."