Tennis: Wimbledon - Thumbs down for Anna

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The Independent Online
THE LONG lenses drooped and ungrown men wept when the news came through. Anna Kournikova, the 17-year-old Russian girl they call a sensation, and who also plays tennis quite well, withdrew from Wimbledon before a camera shutter could be fired off in anger. Acres of newspaper space will have to be reallocated.

Kournikova's damaged thumb now becomes the most important such digit since the little Dutch boy plugged that leaking major dyke in the Netherlands. She tore a ligament in it when playing Steffi Graf at Eastbourne last week. The injury removes the No 12 seed from the competition she values most. "I feel very sad about it, " she said. "This is my favourite tournament. Wimbledon is the tradition.

"I was hoping a miracle could happen, I was hoping maybe it would get better, but this morning when I woke up it was very difficult for me to move the finger."

There was also a digit problem for Mary Pierce, the No 11 seed, namely that she never managed to pull her finger out. She also withdrew, though Pierce used the protracted route of a slow surrender to Elena Tatarkova of the Ukraine. Even at the best of times, the French player looks as though she is taking the game no more seriously than if she was swanning around in a tournament at her local club.

Steffi Graf, too, broke down, but this was an emotional post-match response rather then a repetition of the leg problems that have held her in thrall for over a year. She beat Gala Leon Garcia of Spain 6-4, 6-1.

It was appropriate that Sir Geoffrey Cass, the president of the LTA and chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Company should witness Graf's match from the Royal Box because the German's career is a continuing run of great theatre.

At 29, Graf is almost prehistoric in the women's game. Her left leg is beginning to show the signs of her years in the sport and if she went to Long John Silver's doctor for a consultation he would offer only one opinion.

Graf said yesterday that her fitness was as good as it has been for some time, though the component parts of her game have still to come together. Her match yesterday was splattered equally with the familiar concussive forehands plus some horrible errors.

If she was not playing exactly like the Graf of old, then this athlete before us did not look much like the original model either. She looks leaner, and the months of inactivity have led to a diminished musculature. It is not, however, bulk that Graf needs to find. It is the muse that needs activating and Graf does not have many matches to find it before she runs into someone not cowed by her reputation.

"Physically, I feel that my muscles are not as strong," she said. "You go through different stages in your career and at times it is disturbing if you have an injury, but I think it is a lot easier if you are younger and you know you have a lot of years ahead of you."

Graf does not look that far any more, especially as there have been occasions when she thought of leaving the stage entirely. "There have been a couple of times, yes," she said. "There have been a couple of occasions when it has been really difficult. It is a pleasure to be here."

Monica Seles, too, was given a Spaniard to dispatch and responded in like fashion with a straight-sets defeat of Maria Sanchez Lorenzo 6-3, 6-4. Under monochrome skies over Court No 1, she followed on from Andre Agassi, her male counterpart as the person who redefined the return of serve as a significant weapon. Seles is the great returner in more than one sense.

She may wonder if The Fates have long board meetings, with damage to her the single item on the agenda. First they sent a lunatic with a knife by the name of Gunther Parche to see her in Hamburg five years ago. Then, just before the French Open, they took away her father, Karolj, a victim of cancer. Her response could be the letters framed on the strings of her racket, the two Y's.

The question of retirement was also put to Seles. "I didn't think about quitting, but I thought about taking time offwhen I knew my Dad was going through tough periods," she said. "It's the first time in a long time I've had the time to focus on my tennis. I just hope I can keep going like this for the next couple of years because I'm really enjoying playing again."

It was easy to feel sorry for Seles when she came out, though it was not an emotion she afforded herself. When she is on court it is business and there are no asides to the crowd, no teasing. Chris Evert has said that you can dip into a Seles match and not have any idea of the score from the player's countenance or behaviour.

Seles is not the figure we once knew. Her lines are less soft, and the impression is of even more power. But as her father's wedding ring bounced around on the gold necklace around her neck, the rest of the package seemed to be as we remembered it. Her face became contorted like a mouse approaching the cheese in a trap, and her game was as unpretty as it always was. Not beautiful, but beautifully effective.

And, of course, there was the backing track of the Seles grunt. Her opponent could make some rather odd noises herself and during the more strenuous rallies it sounded as though the match was taking place in a farmyard. There will, however, be no need for another unpleasant sound this fortnight. Miss Kournikova has gone and she will take the baying with her.