Graf's career in doubt

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The Independent Online
"I feel I'm in seventh heaven," was how Steffi Graf summarised her Wimbledon triumph last year. Now the valedictory articles are being prepared. And not for the first time.

The great German athlete's career is under threat again following further surgery, on this occasion to repair her left knee five days before her 28th birthday on Saturday.

Rehabilitation is expected to take six months, and Graf's Austrian surgeon, Reinhard Weinstabl, has expressed a doubt that the seven-times Wimbledon champion will be able to compete again at the highest level. Graf issued a statement after the operation, saying she was "confident that I will return to the sport which I love so much - and in good health."

Weinstabl, unfortunately, was less certain. "That is certainly our aim," he said. "Whether that aim can be reached one cannot say now."

The German Olympic team and tennis federation doctor, Joseph Keul, had supportive words for Graf. "It is a sign of wear and tear that, however, by no means has to mean the end of a career," he said. "I think that Steffi Graf will be 100 per cent again by the end of the year."

Graf, a perfectionist, is unlikely to settle for less than the highest level, even though it will be a difficult decision. She does not have a clear idea what to do with her life after tennis and a hefty slice of her fortune has been lost as a result of her father/manager, Peter's, problems with the German tax authorities.

Currently ranked No 3 in the world, her lowest position for a decade, Graf finds herself caught in the incoming tide of a new generation. Martina Hingis has supplanted her as the No 1, Iva Majoli has won the French Open, and Anna Kournikova and Venus Williams are in the process of cutting their teeth.

This would be hard enough for Graf to deal with if she were fit and confident, but there have been signs that her opponents no longer fear her, 21 Grand Slam titles or not.

At least she will be in good hands. The Gars am Kamp centre has been used by numerous sportsmen and women - the former Formula One racing champion Niki Lauda recuperated there from severe burns suffered in a crash in Germany and returned there recently following a kidney transplant.