Profile: Steffi Graf - Steffi

There was a time, not so long ago, when you looked at Steffi Graf and thought, what a pity. A funny thing to think about someone who had won so many millions of pounds on the tennis-court, perhaps. Graf was still in her twenties, still in the midst of what should have been her prime. But she was no longer racing across the court to launch a crunching forehand pass with the lovely athletic freedom that had been her signature since she arrived on the circuit as a 13-year-old prodigy. And no one knew what was going on in her head, except that, whatever it was, she probably didn't deserve it.

Everybody loved watching Stefanie Maria Graf play tennis. In company and in the locker-room she was quiet, even aloof, not at all one of the girls. In action, however, she incarnated a kind of metaphysical joy. You watched her hit a running forehand and you imagined you knew what kind of a person she was.

She wasn't beautiful in any of the usual ways. Not even Patric Demarchelier, who photographed her for Vogue when she was 20, could turn those big, peasant-girl features and that nondescript hair into conventional cover- girl looks. Yet when she was hitting a ball there was something in the way she moved, something about the arrangement and articulation of the limbs, that created a different kind of beauty.

But as she struggled to play through the pain of a deep-seated back injury, it looked as though some small but vital element of her art, perhaps the thing that made the difference between a contender and a champion, had been driven out of her. She had been 5ft 9in and 132lb of power and grace. Now she was just another player, hot and uncomfortable in defeat.

That, clearly, was what Martina Hingis thought last year, when she dismissed the possibility of a renewed challenge from the woman whose pre-eminence she had usurped. You could not take Graf's record away from her, the teenager said, but the game was faster and more athletic now. "She's old, and her time has gone."

These words may have been on both players' minds when they met in the final of the French Open two weeks ago. "Not one of you expected me to be here," Graf told journalists before the match. "I did not expect it myself." It was the first meeting between the two in the final of a Grand Slam tournament, and it was the one major competition Hingis had yet to win. But, confronted by something resembling the old Steffi Graf, the current world No 1 was found wanting. She cracked, and the echo will be heard next week around the precincts of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, where the two women are seeded to meet each other in the Wimbledon final.

Hingis had been made to eat her words. But she is not the only one guilty of faulty predictions on this particular topic. Back in 1988, when she became the third woman in history to win all four Grand Slam tournaments inside a calendar year - as well as taking Olympic gold in Seoul - Graf herself was pretty clear about what lay ahead. "In 10 years' time," she announced, "I won't still be playing tennis. I can't imagine being 30 and still on the tour."

Last Monday, Graf turned 30. Nine days earlier in Paris she had won her 22nd Grand Slam tournament - renewing speculation that she may yet overhaul Margaret Court's record of 24. Her earnings for the season stand at just over half a million pounds, putting her second in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) money list, behind Hingis, and third in its latest rankings, behind Hingis and Lindsay Davenport. In May she played her 1,000th WTA singles match, from which she has accumulated precisely $21,512,490 in prize money. And her birthday celebrations were enhanced by the news that she had been seeded No 2 at Wimbledon, putting her in line for another rendezvous with Hingis.

That possibility, with respect to the legitimate hopes of Jana Novotna, Venus Williams, Anna Kournikova and others, could be said to represent box-office heaven. A vengeful Hingis, who this week refused to apologise for her Paris tantrums, versus a Graf in full sail and looking for an eighth Wimbledon title - the ratings for that one would go through the roof.

Today, Graf can laugh about her own predictions for her future. "When I was 19," she said in Paris, "I couldn't even imagine being 20. In fact I've been amazed by everything - to have recovered my physical condition, the desire to play, my self-belief and, most of all, the joy of holding up a Grand Slam trophy. Let's say that I owe a lot to the two years when I couldn't play."

Those two years, 1997 and 1998, came at the end of a decade that seemed to hold little besides trouble and pain. Between January 1988 and January 1990 she won eight of nine Grand Slams - and was leading 5-3 in the third set of the ninth, against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in Paris. But then the problems began, starting with allegations of financial and social impropriety against her father, whom she had idolised.

Peter Graf's attempts to diddle the German tax authorities cost him a two-year sentence, of which he served nine months. His daughter, too, paid a heavy price. Not just in the wreck of her parents' marriage but in repayments totalling tens of millions of Deutschmarks. She sold the Manhattan triplex apartment from which she had made expeditions to art shows and rock concerts, although she hung on to her residences in Heidelberg, near her birthplace, and Boca Raton, Florida. While she is clearly not short of the price of a meal, her fortune is not what it might have been. And she has not, so far, made a splash in business; hands up anyone with a pair of Steffi Graf jeans in the closet.

These problems coincided with the discovery of a bone spur in her lower back. When you play around a chronic condition like that, you risk creating what are called compensating injuries. That's what happened. Not surprisingly there were thoughts of retirement, although in 1996 she seemed to have beaten the demons, vanquishing Sanchez Vicario, at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and Monica Seles, in New York. But she hadn't convinced herself. "Even in '96," she said recently, "I was struggling with a lot of different injuries. I think at points I was really lucky to be able to pull out the victories that I had."

And then came the real plunge into the abyss. The injuries forced her to miss four straight Grand Slam events, and when she came back last summer it was to lose to Natasha Zvereva in the third round at Wimbledon. She fell out of the year-end top 10 in 1997 and again in 1998. "It's been some good times, some strange times," she said. "It's just been a difficult road."

So victory in Paris a fortnight ago, when she became the first woman in the open era to beat the world's top three (Hingis, Davenport and Seles) in a single tournament to take her first Grand Slam title in two and a half years, released a flood of relief. Her father was there, too, sitting with her younger brother, Michael, half a dozen rows away from her mother, Heidi. At the end of the match, the estranged parents embraced.

"At the beginning of the year," she said, "things didn't go so well. But in the last two weeks I've rediscovered the pleasure of tennis. I feel more open now, more able to express my feelings without the fear of losing my concentration. I've got rid of the burden of records. Now I want to be happy with what what I do, as well as with my game. Maybe that's why I've started winning again. It's a bit like turning back time."

And then she added this: "Focusing on tennis has allowed me to forget all the other things and to concentrate more deeply on my problems. Because it's only on the court that I can be alone."

Since adolescence, her entire life - from her teenage menstrual cycle, charted in a German magazine, to her father's affairs - has been exposed to public scrutiny. Yet the only place she can find some peace is in front of packed grandstands and squadrons of photographers. This, sometimes, is the condition of the modern sports celebrity. How little we really know her. And oh, how we'll miss her when she's gone.