McNeil serves up history, dishes out defeat to Graf

June 22, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England -- Lori McNeil washed her breakfast dishes yesterday and then came to Centre Court and proved there is no such thing as a sure thing, not even in women's tennis.

Steffi Graf, the prohibitive favorite to win her sixth title in seven years here, instead became the first defending women's champion to lose in the opening round, as McNeil won in straight sets, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5).

"It doesn't hurt to lose my crown," Graf said. "It hurts to lose. I mean, right now, I'm very disappointed. I've been working two weeks very hard, and so it's very disappointing.

"But she played better than I did."

It was a match played in fits and starts. Rain stopped play two times and stretched the match to more than five hours.

As Graf made uncharacteristic mistakes, women's players on the outer courts watched the scoreboard on the ivy-covered stadium wall in disbelief, and when McNeil finally won, their eyes widened and they struggled to hide their smiles.

Suddenly, the women's tournament at Wimbledon is a whole new ballgame.

McNeil earned her victory with timely aces and a deep, punishing serve that kept Graf from getting into her game.

But at 5-6 in the first set, with McNeil up 30-40, Graf helped McNeil's confidence by uncharacteristically double-faulting the set away.

It was but the first of several mystifying errors by a woman who prides herself on near-flawless tennis.

No, Graf said, she wasn't nervous because of her semifinal loss to Mary Pierce at the French Open.

No, Graf said, the weather didn't bother her. The wind, the rain and the cold were the same for everyone.

"Like I said, Lori just played better than I did," Graf said. "I didn't serve well, and on the important points, I just didn't play the right points."

In the second set, McNeil helped herself by serving an ace when facing set point at 3-5 and 30-40 and holding on to close within 4-5. And then she broke Graf to even the set at 5-5.

In the tiebreaker, Graf cracked. She was up 3-2 with two serves, and hit an easy overhead into the net. Then she double-faulted to make it 3-4 for McNeil, the 22nd-ranked player in the world.

"I'm just so happy I played well the whole match and that it was a good match," McNeil said. "I was excited to play Steffi. It distracted my concentration last week at Eastbourne, but once I was out of there and preparing for Wimbledon, I found I was looking forward to the challenge."

But she was nervous, said her friend, actress Robin Givens, who flew in for the match.

"I made her do the breakfast dishes to take her mind off it," said the former wife of Mike Tyson.

McNeil looked embarrassed, but owned up.

"Robin's mom made us breakfast, and I said I'd do my share by washing the dishes," McNeil said. "But I told her not to tell anyone, that I wouldn't own up. But, OK, I did the dishes."

And then she went out and produced one of the biggest upsets of her career.

There have been nine women's titles in smaller events in McNeil's 10-year career, but only a few big moments.

The last time Graf lost in the first round of a WTA tour tournament was at the 1992 Virginia Slims Championships to McNeil. And in 1987, McNeil upset Chris Evert at the U.S. Open.

But for the 30-year-old, who resides in Houston, there have been fewer moments than were predicted in her early years.

"I've had some great wins and some bad losses," she said. "But I feel that I'm maturing now. I'm really more mature off the court, and I think that's helped me on the court."

Though this is the first time Graf has lost in the opening round of a tour tournament since 1992, she did not consider it an upset, she said, because of her opponent.

"Lori has always the ability to play well against the top players, so it's not that big," Graf said. "There was just nothing I could do. She played a great game at 5-4. I mean, she played the ball very deep and just again she played the right shots, and I didn't play aggressive. Maybe I should have come in a little bit more, but with her serve, it was very difficult."

GRAF FACTS

Facts concerning Wimbledon defending champion and No. 1 seed Steffi Graf's loss yesterday:

* She is the first women's defending champ to lose in her opening match.

* Graf has lost two straight matches for the first time since 1984-85.

* Graf is the second No. 1 women's seed to lose her opening match. Margaret Smith, who received a first-round bye, lost to Billie Jean Moffitt in a second-round match in 1962.

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