Graf passes youthful challenge


WIMBLEDON, England -- The future of women's tennis is a 14-year-old child from Switzerland, with a pony tail, a smile, and a backhand from the tennis heavens.

One day, she may even win Wimbledon.

But yesterday, Martina Hingis of Switzerland faced the tennis present, Steffi Graf.

In what was billed as the most eagerly awaited women's match of the Wimbledon first round, Graf clubbed Hingis, 6-3, 6-1, in 49 minutes yesterday.

But forget the result. Remember the punishing baseline shots of Hingis. And listen to Graf, when asked if the Swiss kid who won the Wimbledon juniors last year could win the women's title in three or four years.

"Yes, a good chance," Graf said. "I think you know, with 14, you can't be perfect. That's obvious. But she's so steady from the back. There are always some things with 14. You still have such a way to go and to learn."

No. 1 against a teen-ager is the common thread that holds women's tennis together. Chris Evert had to stare down Tracy Austin's pigtails. Martina Navratilova had to confront Graf.

And now, Graf, 26, the No. 1 seed, and five-time Wimbledon champion, has to remain afloat in a world of teen-agers. She even has to forget her most recent past at Wimbledon, where she was eliminated in the 1994 first round.

"Now, I don't have to leave in a panic," Graf said.

It's amazing what beating a kid who comes up to your shoulders can do for a tennis star. But Graf needed this win, desperately. She injured her wrist two weeks ago. Her back threatens to give out at an instant. She even had to pull out at the final moment in the doubles with Navratilova.

Teen-agers don't fear legends.

"In the beginning, you're much fresher," Graf said. "You just enjoy it more. You relax more. You don't think everything is so important."

But Graf said a veteran constantly is thinking during a match.

"You're more aware of the big points and you're more aware of how important matches are," she said.

Now, after clearing a teen-aged speed bump, Graf can resume a more normal route to a Wimbledon title. Her aim: win quickly.

Others are following her trail.

For defending women's champion Conchita Martinez, the No. 3 seed, yesterday was a chance to return to Center Court and defeat Asa Carlsson, 6-1, 6-1.

"I don't feel any pressure," said Martinez, a clay courter who apparently has made her peace with grass.

So has Mary Pierce. In her belated Wimbledon debut, Pierce, the No. 5 seed, defeated Sandra Dopfer, 6-1, 6-2. The only previous time she played on grass, Pierce lost in a tuneup tournament to a junior.

"I didn't know what to expect, but this is an amazing tournament," said Pierce, winner of the Australian Open.

Pierce even deftly handled the questions from Britain's voracious tabloid reporters.

She wouldn't tell anyone if she has a boyfriend. Yes, she loves wearing a dress. Yes, again, she is satisfied with the tournament security arrangements, a reply to a veiled question about her father, who has been banned from all tour events.

And what about the serious stuff, such as, can she win Wimbledon?

"Who knows?" Pierce said. "Hopefully, I'm going to do my best. I'm going to try."

In the men's bracket, No. 1 Andre Agassi made his 1995 Wimbledon debut -- and fashion statement. If pirates wore white, they would look something like Agassi, with a white bandanna stretched across his head, two earrings, floppy white shirt and baggy white shorts down to his knees.

His tennis was pretty good, too. Agassi routed Andrew Painter, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1.

Not bad for a guy who didn't even play a warm-up tournament on grass.

"Quite honestly, the more you play on grass, the worse you get," he said.

No. 3 Boris Becker, No. 6 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, No. 11 Jim Courier, No. 13 Stefan Edberg and No. 15 Andrei Medvedev all made it safely through the first round.

But No. 9 Michael Stich, 1991 champ, lost in the first round for the second straight year when he was beaten by Jacco Eltingh, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), 6-1. And Michael Joyce defeated No. 10 Marc Rosset, 6-0, 6-7 (8-10), 7-5, 6-2.

Stich said Eltingh looked like a man who had played on grass "100 times before."

Actually, Eltingh was simply a player who gathered grass court momentum during the tuneup events.

"To win a first-round match against a former winner on Center Court at Wimbledon is something you can only dream about," he said. "You know just beating him at this spot, that's very special. But I've definitely played better matches, but not on a big court like at Wimbledon and not against such a big player."

That's Wimbledon's magic. Some champions win, while others lose. And always, there is another teen-ager waiting in the wings.

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