Graf's fall from grace and grandeur

Simon O'Hagan in Brighton wonders if time is running out for a court queen
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AS Mary Joe Fernandez and Amanda Coetzer were yesterday winning through to today's final of the 18th and last women's indoor tournament here, the player who might have given the event some grandeur as it faded into tennis history was looking similarly bereft. Time has run out for Brighton. Could the same be true of Steffi Graf?

After Graf had been bludgeoned to defeat by the South African Mariaan de Swardt last week, she had a choice of four places to which she could retreat to lick her wounds. In Germany, there is the parental home in Bruhl - if that is not a misnomer given her father's present status as an inmate of Mannheim jail - but it would have afforded her little protection from a German media that has feasted on the scandal surrounding Graf's financial affairs. Nor would the Heidelberg apartment that Graf co-owns with her racing-driver boyfriend Michael Bartels.

Then there is the loft in New York, where Graf has said she is happiest because it is possible for her to walk the streets like any normal person. That must have tempted her. But her destination after making a rapid exit from Brighton on Wednesday night was Boca Raton, Florida, where the advantages are twofold: inaccessibility to outsiders, and unlimited scope for practice on the courts of the private tennis club adjacent to the Graf residence.

There is a dilemma here, however, in a life suddenly full of them. Graf's chronic back injury has forced her to limit her appearances - she has played only nine tournaments this year - and how much she prepares for them. As she said last week, "It used to be that I had one or two matches to get into a tournament. But that doesn't really happen any more. You've got to be right there from the start. I've done it a few times this year, but you can't expect it all the time."

While the prospect of further early-round exits is hardly likely to appeal to one of the greatest champions tennis has known, Graf is having to live with an even deeper anxiety over what may happen as a result of the German authorities' investigation into her taxes - to her as well as to her father. She denied that factors beyond the court had affected her performance against De Swardt, but it was a claim that carried no more conviction than her assertion that for a set and a half De Swardt had "played the best a woman has ever played against me".

What there is little doubt about is that Graf is at a watershed in her career. She is 26, with nearly 14 years on the professional circuit behind her, the last nine of them as either the No 1 or No 2 player in the world. For more than a year she has lived with physical pain, and the knowledge that it will never go away. In spite of that, she has performed remarkably, winning all three of the 1995 Grand Slam tournaments that she entered, culminating in her defeat of the resurgent Monica Seles in the US Open final at Flushing Meadow last month.

That, Graf said, was the biggest of any of the 18 Grand Slams she had won. Against her fiercest rival, there was a point to be proved like no other before. By achieving it, Graf lifted her reputation into a new dimension altogether.

For Graf, that is a source of huge satisfaction as she contemplates her future - and, according to a German source close to her, she will be thinking much longer-term than the Philadelphia tournament and the WTA Championships in New York that come the week after. Seles, if she wants, can be the game's dominant force until well into the next century. How long will Graf be prepared to suffer in the battle to keep up?

This year, injury forced her to miss the Australian Open. Then came the painstaking process of carefully rationed activity that, against all the odds, led to triumphs in the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Only Graf knows how much that took out of her, and whether she can face it all over again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.

When, two months ago in Toronto, Graf made as premature an exit from the Canadian Open as she did from this tournament, Coetzer was the woman responsible. The 5ft 2in South African went on to lose in the final to Seles, but today, her 24th birthday, she has the chance to go one better and win what would be her first title this year and her eighth in all.

Coetzer, ranked 23 in the world, beat the eighth-ranked Maggie Maleeva of Bulgaria 6-3 6-3 in much the better of yesterday's semi-finals. Generating a surprising amount of power on her groundstrokes, Coetzer was quicker, more versatile and had an edge to her game that her opponent's lacked.

Maleeva was let down by her serve, while the big forehand on which she was reliant was rarely as accurate as she needed it to be. She was still tough to put away even after Coetzer had broken to go 4-2 up in the second set. The next game Coetzer only won after five deuces, and when serving at 5-3 she squandered five match points before producing a winning forehand pass.

In the other semi-final Kristie Boogert of Holland took a time-out after twisting her ankle, and Fernandez was troubled by a torn toe-nail. In the end it was the more experienced American who kept mind and body together the better, coming through to win an error-strewn match 3-6 6-1 6-3.