Calf injury forces Graf out of Australian Open

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The Independent Online
TENNIS Injury has forced Steffi Graf to relinquish her Australian Open title, the last of the four Grand Slam singles championships the world No 1 had to her name.

Ironically, a vast improvement in the back condition which caused Graf so much pain and anguish during the concluding months of last year had enabled her to practise with her renowned zeal - and she promptly strained a calf muscle in her right leg.

"It put me out for nine days," the 25-year-old German said from her base in Boca Raton, Florida, yesterday. "I'm back on the court now, but obviously I'm not going to be ready, and I don't want to make the mistake I've made in the past by going into a tournament not being well prepared."

Graf's withdrawal from the tournament, which starts on Monday week, guarantees a new name on the honours board. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario will be installed as favourite, and there is likely to be renewed confidence in the steps of challengers such as Conchita Martinez, Jana Novotna and Gabriela Sabatini.

Various injuries and illnesses have punctuated Graf's 12 years on the tour, but have not prevented her from winning 15 Grand Slam singles titles - including five at Wimbledon - and accumulating $14.64m (£9.75m) in prize money. She expects to resume in a WTA Tour event in Tokyo the week following the Australian Open.

It was feared that the persistent lower-back problem would threaten Graf's future in the sport, which is why she could respond philosophically to a routine leg injury: "It's very frustrating, but on the other hand I was really happy that my back has beengoing well. That is a very big step."

A course of physiotherapy relieved the inflammation caused by a bone spur, Graf having ruled out talk of an operation. "Surgery is never going to be an option for me," she said. "I'm too young to go through surgery. I've seen different doctors and heard different opinions. Fortunately, I found a sports clinic where they could perform physiotherapy on my back, and it has worked very well for me."

Had the rehabilitation process been a mental strain? "I wish I had been able to spend the time differently, rather than doing a lot of physiotherapy and a lot of work-outs and weights and water-jogging, and all the things I have to do away from the courtnow," she said.

"But if that's what it takes, I'm going to do everything to get fit for the whole year, and be able to play without any problem. I wish I would have done it earlier in my career. I've always worked a lot, but I never really tried to work too much in relaxation time by getting good massages, or doing a lot of stretching, those kind of things."

So her body is rebelling after all the years of pounding? "It's a possibility, but everybody reacts to things differently. Maybe because I was practising so young, I haven't spent as much time as the young players are doing now. stretching, and those kind of exercises, were not very common when I started."

On her last appearance, in mid-November, Graf was defeated by Mary Pierce, 6-4, 6-4, in the second round of the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden, New York.

Rather than enhancing Pierce's sensational victory at the French Open, the result indicated that the German lacked match fitness on her return to the tour for the first time since losing to Sanchez Vicario in the final of the US Open in September.

The Spaniard had edged her second Grand Slam title of the year, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4, with Graf's suspect back causing her some concern in the eighth game of the second set.

Although played on a rubberised concrete court similar to those at the Australian Open, the match contrasted sharply with the final between Graf and Sanchez Vicario in Melbourne.

Graf had thrashed Sanchez Vicario, 6-0, 6-2, to complete a non-calendar Grand Slam of the world's four major championships to set alongside her "Golden Grand Slam" of 1988: the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US championships, plus the Olympic women's singles title, all within the same year.

The notion that Graf would dominate the women's game throughout 1994 was blown away in Paris in June, when the tall, blonde Pierce peppered the German's court to win their semi-final, 6-2, 6-2. The adoptive French player then lost to Sanchez Vicario in the final.

In Graf's next match, she became the the first defending champion ever to lose in the opening round of the women's singles at Wimbledon, falling 7-5, 7-6, to the attacking style of the American, Lori McNeil.

The disappointments do not appear to have diminished Graf's enthusiasm. "If I am healthy, I want to play for another while, for myself, for no other reason," she said. "I love the game a lot, and I want to be able to play at a high level. I'm very, very eager."