Graf savours the delights; of an 'unexpected' victory

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The Independent Online

If Tim Henman's heroics have inspired thousands of boys to pick up a racket, it is to be hoped that just as many girls, previously too shy to play tennis, will take heart from Steffi Graf's embarrassing air shot on her way to winning the title for a seventh time.

It can be reassuring for mere mortals to witness a touch of fallibility in a great champion. Before completing her 20th Grand Slam singles triumph and the 100th tournament success of her career, Graf the perfectionist made as big a hash of a shot as you would see from a weekend hacker.

A set up against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and serving at 4-1 in the second, Graf had already saved one break point and was ready to dispatch a second when her opponent sent up a lob. The champion gave her racket an almighty swing, as if attempting to bounce a smash up to the Duchess of Kent in the Royal Box, and completely missed the ball.

"It was a little embarrassing," Graf admitted, adding that she could think of no distraction that might have taken her eye off the ball. "There is nothing I can blame," she said. "I thought I had it. I don't know what happened."

Although Graf contrived to knock the ball over the net after it had bounced, she had no chance of parrying her opponent's drive in response, and Sanchez Vicario blew a kiss to the heavens in thanks for suddenly being able to make a match of it.

Graf knew from the experience of 35 previous contests against the Spaniard that Sanchez Vicario is the last player who needs to be offered invitations. A couple of double-faults opened the door again when the German served for the match at 5-4, and for a while it seemed that we were on course for another epic.

It was then that we saw the more familiar, imperious side of Graf as she finished the match in the next two games, 6-3, 7-5, for the loss of only one more point. "Even when I lost that service game with the double- faults and it got to 5-5, I still felt I was going for my shots," she said. "I still felt good out there, so I didn't think too much about a third set."

Sanchez Vicario did, being such a wonderful competitor, although she realised early in the contest that she was confronted with a far more efficient Graf than the player she faced in last year's marathon final. "I didn't think she was going to play so deep," the Spaniard said, marvelling at the consistency of the shots her opponent drilled low into the corners, particularly on the forehand.

So, once again, Graf has prevailed against a background of physical and family problems. Her father, Peter, who was already under investigation for alleged tax evasion on her earnings when she won the title last year, is in prison, awaiting trial.

Her health is a constant worry. Although she has not been troubled by a chronic back condition of late, a foot operation caused her to miss the Australian Open in January, and a knee injury prompted her to withdraw from the pre-Wimbledon tournament at Eastbourne.

In addition, a viral infection gave her a ghostly appearance during her perilous semi-final against Kimiko Date, and on Saturday her doctor's view was that she ought to have been in bed.

Asked, inevitably, if the latest victory rated as the best, she said: "Not the best, but the most unexpected. I came here on the Saturday before Wimbledon and I felt physically that I wouldn't get through it all the way.

"The last three years I've had these decisions, to play or not to play, and I've always chosen to play and take the risk. Knowing the situation I was in two weeks ago, physically, it just seems amazing to come through like that. I don't know how I do it, I just keep on doing it."

Her victory added pounds 353,000 to her career prize money, which now stands at pounds 12.5m.

This week Graf is due to go to Austria with Anke Huber for a relegation play-off in the Fed Cup. She then hopes to visit her father between further meetings with lawyers and tax investigators before leaving for the Olympics.

After that, fitness permitting, she will prepare for the United States Open, where she could continue to chip away at the record 24 Grand Slam singles titles won by the Australian Margaret Court. Who knows? Martina Navratilova's nine Wimbledon singles titles may be eclipsed.

Such projections prompt the 27-year-old Graf to smile and count her blessings. "I think it is a little too early to see myself in a place in history," she said. "I think it's just remarkable, it being the 20th Grand Slam. It didn't catch me until I went to the locker- room about the 100th title, but winning seven Wimbledons is something I've never imagined I would be capable of doing. It feels pretty awesome right now."