West Germany's Steffi Graf survived a surprisingly strong challenge from Lori McNeil and defeated the Houston right-hander, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, Wednesday night to move into the quarterfinals of the $1-million Virginia Slims tennis championships at Madison Square Garden in New York.
McNeil, who didn't join the professional tour until three years ago, gave the tournament's second-seeded player all she could handle.
"I just barely won this match," Graf admitted.
It was Graf's fearsome forehand, one of the biggest weapons in women's tennis, against the gritty determination of McNeil, who kept the ball low with slices and tried to cut off the angles. Graf's forehand was brilliant at times, and she occasionally lashed the ball way long.
McNeil's tactics also worked sporadically. She netted too many volleys to win, but she gave promise of things to come.
"She played really well, and in the second set she served and volleyed well," Graf said of McNeil, who won the Big Eight championships when she was a junior at Oklahoma State. "I never played her before. I thought it was going to be a much easier match than this."
In other matches Wednesday, Czechoslovakia's Helena Sukova, seeded fourth, downed Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina, 6-4, 6-4, and No. 6 Claudia Kohde-Kilsch of West Germany defeated Zina Garrison, 6-3, 7-5.
In the quarterfinals, top-seeded Martina Navratilova will play West Germany's Bettina Bunge; third-seeded Hana Mandlikova of Czechoslovakia will face Pam Shriver, Kohde-Kilsch will meet Sukova, and Graf will take on No. 7 Manuela Maleeva.
Sunday's winner will receive $125,000, with the runnerup earning $60,000.