Grit, guile help Graf weather Williams

Old champ out-duels teen in soggy classic

July 02, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Foreign Staff

WIMBLEDON, England -- Rain, delays and Venus Williams could not beat Steffi Graf yesterday.

Graf would not give in. She would not go quietly into the tennis night when there was another Wimbledon to grab hold of, another title to chase.

So there Graf was on Centre Court in a quarterfinal match that started at midday and ended in the gloaming. The old champ was swinging from the heels, showing the future star how to win the big points, how to survive on guile and, finally, how to escape with as big a victory as this tournament has seen in years.

No. 2 Graf took out No. 6 Williams, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, in a finish that was good enough for a final.

It was a match that began an hour late and was interrupted three times by rain. Yet no amount of starts and stops could take away from the quality of play or the natural drama of watching tennis future -- 19-year-old Williams -- try to knock off tennis past and present -- 30-year-old Graf.

"I don't think very often about age," Graf said. "The body tells me sometimes, but otherwise I go out there and play."

And Graf played wonderfully, taking Williams' power and shoving back sliced backhands, winning all the big points down the stretch and even coming into the net to put away a couple of volleys.

After suffering from injuries for a couple of years, Graf is unexpectedly back, winning the French Open last month and hanging on as one of the game's great players.

What does Graf have left?

"She has the will," Williams said.

And Graf will need that will as she aims for an eighth Wimbledon title. Yet there is still a long way to go in this waterlogged Wimbledon, where matches are so stacked up the women's final will likely be played a day late, on Sunday.

In the women's semifinals scheduled for tomorrow, Graf is due to meet the winner of the Nathalie Tauziat-Mirjana Lucic match. Tauziat led 6-4 with Lucic serving at 3-3, 30-15 in the second set before rain halted play.

Advancing to the other semifinal was No. 3 Lindsay Davenport, who defeated reigning champion and No. 5 Jana Novotna, 6-3, 6-4.

Davenport will await the outcome of the match of qualifiers -- Alexandra Stevenson vs. Jelena Dokic. Before play was halted, Stevenson won the first set, 6-3, and Dokic was serving at 5-1, 30-40 in the second set.

The men weren't as fortunate, with only two quarterfinals started and none close to completion. The tournament will try to get through the full men's quarterfinal program today.

But it was Graf and Williams who carried the show yesterday in a match where momentum seemed to swing with the rain.

"With as many breaks as we had, I think it was unbelievable tennis," Graf said.

The first set belonged to Graf, with Williams, a notoriously slow starter, finding her range even as she slammed in serves that topped 113 mph.

But there was Williams in the second set, her long legs launching her across the court, chasing down shots and grunting as she slammed winners.

The third set was fitful and frenetic. A light mist took the players off twice, forcing the Centre Court crowd to sit for hours. The crowd clapped and did a wave. Fans spun umbrellas and sat through interviews piped in over the loudspeaker.

In the locker room, Graf ate, read a book and waited. So did Williams, who even sneaked a peak at the videotape-replay of the match.

Finally, at 7: 41 p.m. local time, the match was on live, Graf up 40-15 and serving to even the final set 2-2.

Then came the fifth game, the break Graf needed as she clubbed a forehand down the line and started to race away, 3-2. She saved three break points in the next game by daring Williams to rally from the baseline.

And it finally ended as it usually does in a Graf match: the old champion content to slug away from the baseline, forcing a last error as Williams drove a forehand wide.

One day Williams will probably win Wimbledon, will likely finish her pursuit of No. 1. But she's still learning.

"I should have been more aggressive on the break points," she said.

But Williams gave Graf a match, testing skills that some had thought were lost for good.

"She's very tough," Graf said of Williams. "Obviously, I knew that very well beforehand, and it's one of the reasons I'm happy right now."

Another delighted winner was Davenport, who likes to play away from the spotlight, avoiding the pressure of being the charismatic performer forced to carry a sport on her broad shoulders.

Davenport doesn't have a hard-luck tale or a controversial past. She doesn't put up a fuss or put on much of a show.

But she couldn't help but make a star turn. And to think the British bookmakers marked her down as a 15-1 outsider to take the title. The pre-tournament odds were so ludicrous, her coach, Robert Van't Hof, nearly put a bet down.

Women's quarterfinals

Lindsay Davenport (3) def. Jana Novotna (5), 6-3, 6-4.

Steffi Graf (2) def. Venus Williams (6), 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.

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