Emotional Graf reclaims her premier ranking

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A relieved Steffi Graf will mark her 26th birthday at home in Germany on Wednesday, having celebrated a new beginning here at the French Open after fearing at one stage that a back injury would end her career, writes John Roberts from Paris.

That is why Graf displayed such emotion on winning her 16th Grand Slam singles title on Saturday on the red clay courts of Stade Roland Garros, where she achieved her inaugural major triumph in 1987.

While welcoming the opportunity of a few days' rest, which she hopes will rid her of the virus condition which afflicted her in Paris, Graf is now looking forward to renewed success at Wimbledon a fortnight hence.

Last June she made history at the All England Club by becoming the first defending women's singles champion to lose in the first round, something which proved to be the least of her problems as the year wore on. A chronic condition caused by a bone spur in the lower back flared again shortly before the United States Open and affected her performance in losing to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the final.

"After the US Open it looked for a while that she would never be able to play again the way she did before," Heinz Gunthardt, Graf's coach, said after Saturday's victory against Sanchez Vicario, 7-5, 4-6, 6-0, returned her to No 1 in the world, ahead of the Spaniard.

Graf missed the Australian Open in January because of a calf injury - the result of over-compensating in training after the back injury had stabilised - and flu interfered with her preparation for the French Open to the extent that she had to come into the tournament devoid of match practice on the slow clay.

Nobody was more surprised than Graf when she lifted the trophy for the fourth time, having extended her unbeaten run for the year to 25 matches. "I didn't believe I would get to the final," she said. "That's why I was thinking of playing Eastbourne when I talked to you earlier in the week."

It now seems doubtful that Graf will make her debut in the Direct Line Championships next week. "I got sick four or five days ago, and I think that I probably need two or three days to get rid of everything," she said. "That's going to cut it really short for Eastbourne."

Gunthardt is waiting to finalise Graf's pre-Wimbledon schedule. "We'll see how she recuperates," he said, "because I'm 100 per cent sure this [the French Open] took its toll, since we couldn't practise too much beforehand.

"Physically, she's not as strong as two years ago, with the injuries and the flus and all kinds of things. She's going to be very tired for a few days to come. We'll see how many days that is, then go over to England and start slowly, very slowly, on the grass."

For Gunthardt, Graf's performance here surpassed anything they have achieved since he became her coach in 1991. "I can't claim anything," he said. "I didn't really prepare her well, but I didn't have a chance. And she won it anyway.

"She always told me that she might not have so much ability, but she has great ability to work. Of course, she's wrong. She has the ability to work, but she also has great ability. Because without a lot of natural talent you cannot come into a tournament like this and win it with the preparation she had. It's impossible."

Graf has won titles with more style and far fewer errors, but she responded magnificently to the challenge of making her presence felt here, gaining confidence after conceding only one game to Gabriela Sabatini in the quarter-finals and defeating Conchita Martinez, the Wimbledon champion, in the semi-finals.

Sanchez Vicario, as anticipated, retrieved brilliantly in defence of both the title and the No 1 ranking, but was worn down by being forced to scurry about the court in order to win the second set. She won only six points in the third, Gunthardt observing that: "Arantxa basically collapsed because the workload was too big."

Acknowledging that Graf deserved to win in the end, Sanchez Vicario said the outcome might have been different but for her own virus condition. A case, perhaps, of she who coughs last, coughs loudest.