Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Glory of Graf is worth a repeat

Women's semi-finals: Irresistible force puts Steffi on course for her eighth title and an action replay
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The Independent Online
HER PERSONAL sporting deity was with Steffi Graf at Wimbledon yesterday, lifting her clear of the torrent of big hitting coming from the other side of the net and bearing her to a place in this afternoon's women's final.

Graf, it has to be said, did quite a bit of work herself, too, especially after the halfway mark, as she subdued and then crushed the Croatian Mirjana Lucic 6-7 6-4 6-3 in an hour and 50 minutes.

With the triumph of a 30-year-old over a lookalike blonde of 17, Graf moved a step closer to her eighth championship here and, more pertinently, a glorious double of French Open and Wimbledon in succession. The last time this was achieved was by Graf herself three years ago.

For a while, however, the scenario looked shaky. Lucic, ranked 134 in the world and not given a hope of getting this far at her second Wimbledon, hit out fearlessly and the worry was that Graf, her left thigh bandaged (as a precaution, she said), might be overpowered by the ferocity and accuracy of the groundstrokes she faced.

Graf's problem was twofold. First, she could not land her first serve with anything resembling regularity and second, she seemed unable to risk a change of tactics to take away the initiative that Lucic seized in the first set, in which serve was broken eight times in the first 10 games.

The harder Lucic blazed the ball at her, the harder Graf tried to drive it back, usually to her eventual cost. Whenever she drew Lucic forward, Graf stood a better chance of capturing the point.

With a brass band pumping away outside Court One, neither woman could find much rhythm on serve at the start. Lucic held serve in the opening game but needed to save a break-point. The Croat then went 2-0 up and, though the crowd were solidly behind Graf, she found herself gleaning points mainly from over- ambitious errors from Lucic.

It was not until the sixth game that Graf finally managed to hold serve, spreading her arms wide in relief and gratitude to be level at 3-3. At 5-4 Graf served for the set but was foiled by the pounding, relentless forehand of the Croat and, at 5-6, she needed to save two set-points, one with an ace and the other with a forehand pass.

Having achieved a tie-break, Graf was expected to bear down on her much less experienced opponent, one who readily admits the German was her idol when she was growing up. But there was no obvious admiration from Lucic as she dominated the tie-break with four crunching forehand winners after opening with a double-fault.

Having gone a set behind in 49 minutes Graf might have been expected to experiment with a switch of tactics. But she knows only one way to play - flat out, top speed. Not for her the wiles of drop shots or moonballs. It had looked a shaky tactic in the opening set but, as Graf's serve settled into a telling pattern, the match was no longer getting away from her. Nor was she dominating. Though the heavier-built Lucic resorted to towelling herself off almost as frequently as Greg Rusedski, she stayed with Graf in a second set which was as reliable for the servers as the first set had been wayward.

As both women held on steadfastly, the court began to echo to the frenzied cheers of those assembled to watch Tim Henman's fortunes on the giant television screen outside, though there was plenty to applaud inside, too. Graf conjured a break- point which would have given her a 5-3 lead, only for Lucic to respond with successive aces, but the next time the Croat served she was broken, netting a simple forehand volley.

So, after an hour and 20 minutes the match was all square and Graf was holding the most telling statistic of the match so far: only two points conceded on serve in the second set. "I just told myself she couldn't keep on playing like she had done in the first set and I made her play every ball."

Having got her opponent in her gunsights, Graf pounced at the start of the third, going three games clear after an amazing rally which earned a standing ovation as she popped the ball into an empty court with an out-of-breath Lucic draped over the netpost.

By now Lucic had lost not only the range but also the plot. But Graf was beginning to tire in the heat, too. For the first time since late in the opening set she dropped two points in one service game. That apart, the lone threat to the Graf supremacy was the occasional strange bounce which Lucic managed to induce.

Towards the end, Graf was in complete command, striding around and running the show like a gym mistress. Dominant on serve, she stepped up for the last time. Three Lucic errors took her to match-point, at which the Croat struck a forehand service return into the netting. They kissed at the net and basked in the standing ovation they had both earned.

"I didn't play very well but it was good enough," Graf said. "But I couldn't ask more than getting to the final. It has been an incredible few weeks, what with the French. I am amazed and surprised by what has happened."

And for today's final? "I will definitely have to serve better than I did today," said the German perfectionist. "It will be important to keep [Lindsay] Davenport on the move."