Time for Stich

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THE past year has been a barren one for Michael Stich. A year ago he came to Wimbledon fresh from winning the Gerry Weber Open warm- up tournament here, lost in the first round to Bryan Shelton and has not won a title since.

Today the world's No 10 has the chance not just to end the series but to defend a title for the first time in his career, when he meets the big-serving Swiss Marc Rosset in the Halle final.

The 26-year-old, whose Wimbledon triumph in 1991 still counts as the highlight of his career, is arguably the most elegant of the players in the men's game; when he is on form he combines aestheticism with great power and efficiency of strokes. His apparently effortless serve frequently hits 125mph and with the possible exception of a slightly open-fronted forehand volley, he has no weaknesses.

His 7-6 6-1 win against Paul Haarhuis yesterday, taken together with his straight-sets quarter-final win over Richey Reneberg on Friday, illustrates what a force he can be.

On a surface that has required maximum concentration all week for its unpredictability of bounce, Stich has got his serve working at the right moments, and his groundstrokes and volleys are at their best.

Of particular note, he came back from set point down at 5-6 when Haarhuis showed great retrieving ability off several Stich smashes and, once the German had broken the back of the tie break from 2-2 to take it 7-4, he was never again in danger.

Although one of the world's top grass court players, Stich counts grass as no better for him than clay, hard or carpet. "For me it's a good surface because there aren't many players who can play on it, and that gives me a better chance to win tournaments, but it's not real tennis. You have one chance and you have to take it, whereas on clay you have more chances and you have to outplay your opponent."

Rosset, the No 4 seed and ranked 13th, will certainly give the defending champion his toughest test of the week. Having ended the unlikely but immensely popular run of Jimmy Connors in Friday's quarter finals, he then beat Jacco Eltingh 7-6 7-5 in a match with few chances to break serve.

Rosset's big serve worked particularly well, despite him suffering shoulder problems. It was touch and go whether he would be able to play his semi- final or not. A phone call to his doctor in Geneva, followed by a couple of painkillers, allowed him a last- minute practice session.