Athletics: Good times now set to run for Graf

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The Independent Online

There was no scare for Steffi Graf in the National Indoor Arena yesterday. The muscular Austrian enjoyed the smoothest of passages through to the final of the women's 800m, easing to victory in her semi-final ahead of Britain's Jo Fenn.

It was rather different last summer. In June the namesake of the German tennis great discovered a lump behind her right hip. It proved to be a tumour. "There were three weeks when I was not sure if it was cancerous or benign," she recalled. "It was a very worrying period."

Fortunately, the tumour was not malignant, but Graf still feared she might not return to competitive running. "Even after the operation I didn't know if I would recover," she said. "For three months I could hardly move my leg. I began to think that my career was finished."

It wasn't. Slowly, steadily, Graf regained fitness. And now, after belatedly entering the indoor season, she is regaining form. In her heat and semi-final, which she won in 1min 59.75sec, she has looked like the competitor who made a habit of battling her way on to international medal rostrums, albeit in the shadow of Maria Mutola.

Silber Steffi, the Austrian press called her. She has still not struck gold in a global championship, though given her circumstances these past 12 months, another silver lining in Birmingham would qualify as a more-than-precious achievement.

A medal of any colour would mean all the more to Graf if it were to be claimed ahead of Jolanda Ceplak. Her enmity with the Slovenian runner dates back to the main event of the 2002 indoor season, the European Championships in Vienna. Graf was billed as the golden girl of the meeting. She whipped herself into world- record-breaking shape for the women's 800m – only for Ceplak, the bottled-blonde bombshell, to explode on to the scene.

Graf did indeed break Christine Wachtel's 14-year-old world record, crossing the line in 1min 55.85sec. Ceplak, though, finished 0.02sec before her. "She must be making an improvement my coach has not thought about," Graf said at her combustible post-race press conference. The inference was obvious, an implication Kelly Holmes was to echo last summer after finishing in Ceplak's wake at the outdoor European championships in Munich.

Graf was so outraged she announced she would be splitting from her manager, Robert Wagner, who had developed a close relationship with Ceplak. These days, the Austrian's running career is plotted by Jos Hermens, the Dutchman who has been a guiding light to Haile Gebrselassie. Hermens has evidently had a mellowing influence, though the same could be said of last summer's scare.

"Sport is not the most important thing in my life now," Graf reflected. "I don't lose as much nervous energy about it as I did before. I am just happy being back in the sport and being able to compete."