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The Next Steffi Is a Backhand Compliment : Tennis: Huber’s game invites comparison and shows a shot that may be better than that of No. 1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She’s 16, she’s German, she knocks the schnitzel out of the ball and she has been called the next Steffi Graf. Other than that, Anke Huber has absolutely nothing going for her.

Comparisons continuing, Huber remains, oh, nine Grand Slams short of Graf, who is still the player most everyone on the women’s tour looks up to. This is doubly true in Germany, which has been looking for the next Graf since Graf showed up, smiting big forehands into the shadows of the corners.

On the opening day of the Virginia Slims of Palm Springs, Huber unleashed a Graf-like forehand, a very un-Graf-like two-fisted backhand and sprang into the second round. She knocked off Rene Simpson-Alter, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1, easing closer to a possible third-round meeting with Martina Navratilova.

Huber, with closely cropped hair and cherubic looks, reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, the youngest to get that far. Since turning pro at 14, she steadily has climbed the rankings from No. 577 to No. 203 to No. 34 to No. 25.

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What’s next? The top spot, just like Steffi?

“I just want to win the next round,” Huber said, smiling shyly.

It isn’t as though Huber has never heard the “next Steffi Graf” line before, but she pointed out that it is a favorable comparison for her.

“So many people say this, ‘the second Steffi,’ it’s no pressure,” Huber said. “I like it. Steffi is so special, so I don’t think I’ll be a Steffi No. 2.”

Sometimes, it just looks that way. Huber’s coach is Boris Breskvar of Yugoslavia, who coached a young Graf at a tennis center in Boris Becker’s hometown of Leimen.

Breskvar grimaced when asked to compare Graf and Huber.

"(Huber) doesn’t like this, and I don’t like this either,” Breskvar said. “Their games are really very, very different. Anke, for sure, is not worse than Steffi was at 16, perhaps even better.”

Huber began playing tennis at 7, urged by her father. Breskvar found out about her when she was 10 and promptly invited her to train at the Badische Regional Tennis Center in Leimen, where he had once worked with a preteen Becker.

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“I liked at once how she played,” Breskvar said.

Chief among Huber’s weapons is a powerfully struck, two-fisted backhand hit with heavy topspin. Graf’s backhand, long considered her major weakness, is a defensive slice.

Breskvar said Graf and Huber have other differences, too.

“Steffi was probably stronger when she was 16, but the tennis is probably better today and it is more difficult to go into the top 10,” Breskvar said.

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When she is home in Germany, Huber attends public schools, but she takes no course work--such as correspondence courses--while traveling on the women’s tour. Huber won’t be able to play the Lipton International Players Championships in mid-March because of school.

The rest of her education will come when she is holding a racket. Already she attracts a great deal of attention, but Huber believes that is only natural.

“I think it’s normal with young players,” Huber said. “People are always watching us.”

She shook her head. After all, it’s not every day people watching for the next Steffi Graf think they actually may have found her.

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Tournament Notes

Sixteen-year-old Keri Phebus of Palos Verdes was even with Isabelle Demongeot, 7-5, 3-6, 4-4, when their first-round match was postponed because of darkness. Three other matches were postponed in entirety. . . . Angelica Gavaldon, 17, of Coronado, is taking a leave of absence to go back to high school and has withdrawn from two tournaments, the Virginia Slims of Florida and the Lipton International Players Championship.

Mary Pierce, 16, lost to Clare Wood, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, after blowing a 5-1 lead. Stephanie Rehe overcame Jo Durie and a sore right leg muscle to win, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, advancing to a second-round matchup with Barbara Paulus. Rehe was treated five times by the trainer during the match and won despite a rather shaky start. “I felt like I was playing with a golf club out there,” Rehe said.


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