Graf back with a new stroke

John Roberts reports on how injury forced the former world No 1 to modify her game
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The Independent Online
Steffi Graf could regain the status of world No 1 in Paris this week, though that is among the least of the former Wimbledon champion's concerns as she returns to the court after an absence of three months.

Adamant that she will not undergo surgery for a bone spur growth in the lower back - "this is something I just have to live with" - the 25-year- old German is in the process of modifying her game.

Graf's coach, Heinz Gunthardt, explained yesterday that while the service action would remain unchanged, care was being taken to reduce wear and tear during stroke production. "Steffi will have to use the arm more and turn the body less," he said.

Compensating for a chronic injury can create additional problems, as Graf discovered while practising for the Australian Open. She pulled a calf muscle and had to delay her comeback.

By missing the year's first major tournament, Graf had to surrender the one Grand Slam title left in her possession, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario supplanted her as the world No 1 a week after losing to Mary Pierce in the Australian Open final.

While Sanchez Vacario takes a week's break, Graf will return to the top if she wins the Paris tournament and in so doing acquires the necessary bonus points by defeating either Pierce, ranked No 3, or Jana Novotna, the No 5.

Graf's first match since losing to Pierce at the Virginia Slims championships in November is scheduled for tomorrow, against either the Ukranian Larisa Neiland, ranked No 41, or the Russian Elena Makarova, ranked No 51.

Looking slimmer, Graf said she had played well in practice but may lack the edge that comes with matches. Gunthardt considered that she had not played "at her real level" since competing in San Diego at the beginning of August last year.

"I can't expect to be the No 1 without playing tournaments, and I've only played one tournament in five months," Graf said. "I was in Florida until mid-January, and since then I've been in Germany. I've been trying to get fit. You have to be fit the whole year to achieve something.

"I've seen lots of specialists, and the only real answer is to have an operation. But that would mean being out of tennis for six to eight months, and even then it wouldn't be 100 per cent sure." Moreover, she considers herself "too young" for surgery.

Soft options are being sought, in respect of court surfaces. Gunthardt is of the opinion that female players not only start their careers too early but also play too much on concrete. "Because of the relative lack of tournaments on grass and clay, we still haven't been able to make out a coherent schedule for Steffi this year," he said.

Graf at least remains in the game, which is more than can be said for the 21-year-old Monica Seles, who dropped off the rankings computer a year ago today. It is approaching two years since the former world No 1 was stabbed in the back by a Graf fanatic while playing in Hamburg, and there has been no sign of a comeback.

The latest suggestion is that Martina Navratilova may seek a meeting with Seles in her role as president of the WTA Tour players associaton.

"Many of us have tried to have a meeting face-to-face with Monica," Anne Worcester, the WTA Tour's chief executive, said. "It seems to be easier for her to write notes, which is fine. But I think Martina could have a much better chance of making an impact than one of us boring administrators."

If Navratilova does make an approach, it is to be hoped that she learns more than the chief executive. "I don't know whether Monica's hitting or practising; I don't know what she's doing specifically with her time," Worcester said. "I did hear from her a few weeks ago. I got a real nice note from her, but she talked about everything but her tennis life."

Worcester's predecessor, Gerry Smith, considered that Seles would have to fight her way back up the rankings without special dispensations after being absent so long. Worcester takes a more flexible line. "If and when Monica does come back, and obviously we hope she does, there have been no decisions made about her ranking or her seeding," she said.

"One of the nice things about the merger that women's tennis has gone through is that in the past the rankings fell under the auspices of the players association, and now the rankings fall under the auspices of the entire Tour.

"Having said that, the longer Monica has stayed out, the less likely any kind of special exemptions or special rules probably are. But we would review and consider openly any proposal that she would have."

THE WORLD'S TOP FIVE: 1 A Sanchez Vicario (Sp); 2 S Graf (Ger); 3 M Pierce (Fr); 4 C Martinez (Sp); 5 J Novotna (Cz Rep).