Wimbledon '97: Swift Seles beats the rain

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Major Walter Clopton Wingfield is due to be enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame for inventing the game on the lawns of his country estate. Days like yesterday are enough to make one wonder what on earth he was thinking about.

The All England Club was close to its first total washout of a day's play since 1992 when Monica Seles appeared on the Centre Court shortly before twilight.

Not a single ball was hit until 6.05pm, and Seles's opponent, Rachel McQuillan, may have wondered why she had bothered to leave the dressing- room. The Australian, ranked No 105 in the world, won only nine points in the opening set, which Seles won, 6-0, in 19 minutes.

Seles continued to dominate to the extent that the Australian did not win a game until she was 0-3 in arrears in the second set. The irony was that McQuillan's serve, which had been shaky from the start, suddenly produced an ace on game point.

Having waited all day for action, the spectators were primed to roar their approval of a Seles victory after 44 minutes when McQuillan delivered a winning forehand volley on match point. The shot coincided with further rain and Seles was left high, but not dry, two points short of victory at 6-0, 5-2 and deuce.

The players returned to the court after a break of 39 minutes, and the crowd searched the sky for patches of blue as they warmed up before completing the day's first bit of business. McQuillan served more in hope than in prolonging the engagement. She managed to edge to advantage, only to be passed three times - two forehands and a backhand.

It was not the ideal entrance for Seles, the No 2 seed, who has never produced her best form at Wimbledon, but at least she was able to launch herself into the tournament, much to the relief of her supporters.

Seles was relieved that her request for play to be suspended did not backfire. "I was debating if I should do that, after I lost that match point," she said, "but it was so slippery that I don't think it was worth the risk. I was not so sure I made the right decision, because we might not have continued today, but in the end it worked out."

Asked how she had felt starting her first match at six o'clock on Wednesday, she said, "It was tough, because I was supposed to play Monday, so I was here all day Monday. And then I was expecting to play yesterday. But it's tough on all the players. We've been waiting in the locker-room. I'm one of the lucky ones that finished tonight."

When it was put to Seles that she no longer seems quite the same happy player, she said, "Obviously, it's a pretty tough time I'm going through right now, so I can't say I'm in the happiest period in my life in the last five years. I've just got to stick through it."

At the back of her mind is the illness of her father/coach, Karolj Seles. "It's a game, a sport that I'm playing, and what's going on outside in my life is much bigger than that.

"It's really tough not to have my coach here, who at the same time is my dad. I think my game is suffering a little bit because of that. I know that, but I can't think about that."

Asked how her father was feeling, she said: "He seems OK. I try to talk to him every day, or a couple of times a day."

Jana Novotna, who is seeded to meet Seles in the semi-finals, also managed to complete her first-round match against Germany's Wiltrud Probst on No 1 Court. Novotna, who won, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0, admired the new arena, but was taken aback by the high bounce and the performance of her No 90-ranked opponent in the second set.

"The conditions were not at all good," Novotna said. "I thought they had said there would be no play for the day, so I went to practise indoors and then suddenly found I was out playing the match."

Many of yesterday's visitors were disappointed that they were unable to see Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski continue their campaign for Britain. Both are due to play their second-round matches today, Henman on the Centre Court against Jerome Golmard, and Rusedski on No 1 Court against Jonathan Stark with play on both due to start at noon. Play on the outside courts is due to commence at 11am, not forgetting the usual proviso, weather permitting.

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