NEW YORK -- At the age of 27, Steffi Graf is at the top of her game and one of the best players in tennis history. At 15, Anna Kournikova is just beginning.
Today, they will meet on the Stadium Court at the U.S. Open in a match that could be one of the biggest mismatches of the tournament or one of the first matches to showcase what is and what is about to be.
Graf, the No. 1 player in the world and the No. 1 Open seed, is
surrounded by a mystique built on her ability to survive. An athletic woman who has proven her iron will and her talent many times, she is again challenged by a test of mental fortitude.
While trying to win her third Grand Slam of the year and fifth career U.S. Open title, Graf also is burdened by the thoughts of her father's trial for tax evasion that begins Thursday in Germany. The charges stem from the alleged mishandling of her own fortune.
On top of that, she has her latest nagging injury, a sore calf muscle that limited her preparation for this tournament and almost caused her to pull out before it began.
Now comes Kournikova, one of two potential stars still playing in the fourth round. No. 16 seed Martina Hingis, who is also 15, is the other and she will play No. 3 seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario today.
Both teen-agers are clamoring for the spotlight Graf grudgingly shares with co-No. 1 ranked Monica Seles and Sanchez Vicario.
When Graf looks at her fourth-round opponent, she does not seem worried. Asked if there are any young players out here who can challenge either her, Seles or Sanchez Vicario, she didn't take long to answer.
"Not really," she said. "Not now. Maybe in a couple years."
Still, upsets are becoming more numerous on the women's tour. Last night No. 8 seed Lindsay Davenport, who had been the hottest player on the women's tour, lost to Linda Wild, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, who advanced to the quarterfinals.
Wild, 25, has steadily moved up in rankings to reach the highest point of her career at No. 31. Last night, she ended Davenport's string of 16 straight victories that included winning the Olympic gold medal and a victory over Graf in Los Angeles two weeks ago.
"The women's game is the best it's ever been," said Wild. "And yet, it seems like a lose-lose situation. You go out and knock off Lindsay Davenport and people say, 'Linda Wild? Who's that?' But if the top players win every match, everyone says there is no competition in the women's game. I think you can look at this tournament and see how strong the women's game is."
Huge crowds will get a clear view on Stadium Court today when Graf and Sanchez Vicario attempt to maintain the status quo.
Sanchez Vicario has beaten Hingis once on clay, but Hingis has improved since then. The youngest quarterfinalist ever at the Australian Open, Hingis became the youngest player to win a title in Wimbledon history this year, teaming with Helena Sukova for the doubles crown. She, like Davenport, is one of just three women to beat Graf in the last eight months.
"Against Steffi and Arantxa, you just have to go on the court and think positive," said Hingis, who is coached by her mother, Melanie Zogg. "It's the first thing you have to do. If you go on the court and just resign yourself because you lose first two or three points, Steffi will just keep going and so will Arantxa. . . . I have nothing to lose against Arantxa and I try to do my best."
It's what they all try to do, even Graf. She is four victories away from her 21st Grand Slam title. If she gets it, she will be only three behind Margaret Smith Court's record 24.
"Every time I go out there, it is pretty much a challenge in the moment," Graf said. "I haven't shown what I can really do on court. I've been having some lapses, and I want to cut them out. I definitely don't have a motivation problem."
It could be an uncomfortable thought for her young opponent, but Kournikova, according to her coach, Nick Bollettieri, doesn't think she should ever lose.
"She has to respect other players," Bollettieri said. "She has to realize she is the new player on the block. She has to learn to be humble."
Kournikova, blond, bronzed and full-bodied, looks like a model and has played model tennis here. Ranked No. 144 in the world, she is playing in only her second tour event and her first Grand Slam.
LTC The only qualifier left in the draw, Kournikova has beaten No. 65 Ludmila Richterova, No. 132 Nathalie Baudone and No. 14 seed Barbara Paulus to reach her appointment with Graf.
Her victory over Paulus even attracted the attention of rap star Seal, who showed up after her victory and asked, "What does it feel like to know you're the future of women's tennis?"
Perhaps thinking of Bollettieri, Kournikova demurred.
"I don't know that I am the future of women's tennis," she said.
"Everyone seems to think you are," said Seal.
"It's great that people think that," she said. "But we'll have to wait and see what's going to happen."
Pub Date: 9/02/96