Graf takes care of business on and off court

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Tennis

JOHN ROBERTS

reports from Key Biscayne

Steffi Graf's ability to unburden herself on the court has never been more crucial as she prepares for the demands of the summer season while her father-manager remains in prison, awaiting trial accused of tax evasion on her millions.

Peter Graf's predicament appears to have had a fatalistic effect on the Wimbledon champion. "I'm not afraid of anything anymore, including death," she said this week in an interview with the New York Times.

The question of mortality was broached after mention was made of Graf's boyfriend, Michael Bartels, a German racing driver. "You can't stop someone from doing what they care about," she said. "But I knew Ayrton Senna a little bit, and what bothers me is that a year after somebody dies it's like they're forgotten, like they were never there at all. That to me is scarier than dying, that people react that way.''

Her relief to be playing - and comparatively pain-free at present - has been intensified by the need to involve herself in complex business issues in her father's absence.

"I don't enjoy business," she said, "but this whole thing made me learn a lot about people, the way they click. I never had to deal with this type of people before because my father kept them away from me, but I got the picture very quick. It's been an awakening, and not the usual kind.

"It's been interesting but depressing. I'm glad I never had to deal with these people before. I spent the start of the year talking to investigators, choosing lawyers, caring about book-keeping and kind of taking responsibility from A to Z for what's happening to my father.

"I think I've been dealing with a group of people who care about money, image and ego only - even the ones I'm paying. This man [her father] sits in jail, and the only people around him are lawyers, and the other 23 hours he's by himself. It's very hard on our family, and if this is business, I don't like business.

"I want to see what I'm going to do with the rest of my life now. But outside of my tennis, it's all kind of a mystery. And with all the problems I'm always having, tennis is still a challenge.''

That is a business she appreciates. Her form in defeating Mary Joe Fernandez, 6-1, 6-0, in the fourth round of the Lipton Championships here was so outstanding that after the players had split the opening two games the match became a showcase of Graf's skills.

"It was all her out there," the ninth-seeded Fernandez said. "She had answers for everything I was throwing at her." The American is accustomed to losing to Graf, as their head-to-head of of 14-0 shows. Occasionally, Fernandez has created opportunities to win. Sometimes she has frozen in the dazzle of the German's shot-making. Here, she must have wondered why she had bothered to turn up.

Graf declared herself to be "astonished" by her performance. "I felt I could hit whatever I felt I wanted to do. I could have kept on going.''

The reverse was true of Graf's compatriot, the third-seeded Anke Huber, who was flattened in the quarter-finals by the tall American No 8 seed, Lindsay Davenport, 6-0, 6-1.

"I've had a really good last couple of weeks," said Davenport, who pushed Graf hard in the semi-finals of the recent event at Indian Wells, California, before losing, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.

"I didn't have chance to find my rhythm," said Huber, who was the runner- up to Monica Seles at the Australian Open. "She put too much pressure on me from the first ball. Everything was going in.''

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