Steffi still fighting the body blows

Exclusive: The spirit remains as willing as ever but the flesh holds the key to a serious tilt at Wimbledon; Ronald Atkin hears how the former champion has come to terms with frustration
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HELD together by sticking plaster and fortitude, Steffi Graf makes a stirring picture as she aims her hopes, her ambitions, her dreams even, towards Wimbledon, the place where she has won seven times.

Will there be an eighth title this year? For someone in her parlous state of health it is a question which only just manages to provoke a smile. "I am not even looking past tomorrow, honestly," she shrugged as we spoke in the quiet aftermath of her quarter-final victory at the DFS Classic in Birmingham. "I have learned not to expect too much any more. Just looking forward to the next day is enough."

Graf illustrated this fragile mindset by tripping over a cable as she came into the media room to say hello. Immediately the thought registered in neon: Graf in new injury drama.

The truth is that, after 16 years on the pro circuit this wonderful athlete, 29 today, has a body beaten up beyond belief by the relentless pounding of 21 Grand Slam victories, 103 other titles and 943 career singles matches, 844 of them won. It has got to the stage where, in favouring that body to overcome one injury, she incurs another. Clearly the end, if not nigh, cannot be that far off. So when she tells you: "Wimbledon is my target, my goal," you know further planning would be pointless and wish her well with that immediate goal.

Once it was Steffi's back that threatened her career. A fused bone spur in the lower spine left her with what one specialist described as the condition you would expect of a woman in her sixties. Managing to play on through the pain of that injury, and having to compensate for it, placed intolerable strain on other parts of her body and the left knee was next to go. That injury was made worse by a disastrous misdiagnosis and, after quarter-final elimination in the French Open of 1997, she had the operation for a cartilage fracture and partially ruptured patella tendon. That was exactly a year ago, and Birmingham represents only her third tournament since then.

Graf came back at a carefully selected "home" event indoors in Hanover in February, and lost in the quarter-finals muttering about a calf strain. The next attempt was outdoors in the Californian desert at Indian Wells a month later when, with little preparation because of that calf, she breezed through the first three rounds like the Steffi of old. Then, in the third set of a thunderous semi-final with the big-hitting Lindsay Davenport, Graf's left hamstring went. That left thigh was bound up again at Birmingham, just as a precaution said Steffi, though her Swiss coach, Heinz Gunthardt, said: "There is a bit of a hamstring problem. I hope she holds up."

Graf spoke quietly on Friday of the agony, mental as well as physical, of her bid to get back into a sport where, because of so few matches played over the last 12 months, she has fallen out of the rankings. "After getting injured at Indian Wells I tried a few times to start again but after practising for a few hours I always had something else bothering me. First it was the hamstring again, then the calf strain. Every time I got close to feeling I was ready to start playing again something else happened.

"Next I started having shin splints and that took me about three weeks to get over. Finally I started once again with 15 minutes the first day and 20 the next and so on. In nine weeks I practised for only eight days. I knew by then it was already too late to play in the French Open this year but [thrusting her arm forward] my thinking went directly to Wimbledon. The last couple of weeks I have been able to train well, something I haven't done in quite a long time, so I have to be pleased about that, but I am beyond thinking about what people keep asking me; another Wimbledon title, a return to No 1. Too many bad things have happened to my body in the past one and a half, two years.

"About six or seven weeks ago I felt that one more injury would be just too much for me to take. I was at a point where every time I picked up a tennis racket some new niggle came along and I just didn't know where they were coming from because I didn't over-use anything. It was very difficult for me to understand what was going on in my body. The last three years I have seen a lot of doctors, had two operations, a lot of therapy and a lot of rehab. I think there is a point where you just get tired of it all and I had definitely reached that point.

"But the game still fascinates me enough to make me go out there, even when it's only to practise. This time last year I didn't even know if I would ever be back on a tennis court, but here I am, and I am happy with the way it has gone so far here in England.

"My recovery is a stage or two further than I expected, but obviously I would have liked more time on the grass if it hadn't rained so much. I definitely need more time on good grass. The stuff here at Edgbaston is not similar to Wimbledon. A couple more days' hard practice and then I feel I will be able to compete realistically."

When she took her wild card into Birmingham Graf was promptly elevated to top seed, despite lack of a ranking. It will be fascinating to see whether Wimbledon acknowledge her achievements when the seedings are announced tomorrow. The magazine Wimbledon 98 ("In association with the All England Lawn Tennis Club") does not even mention Graf among its 16 top female contenders.

That brings another smile from Steffi. "Fitness is my problem, not my form," she said. "And injury is the only thing that will keep me from playing Wimbledon." In the meantime she has started to write down the things she wants to do with her life after tennis. "The list is pretty long. Every day I write down a few more things. A lot of travel, learning about different things. That's all I'm going to say about that."

Gunthardt indicated the list may be put into operation before much longer. "Once we used to make plans two months in advance. Now it is all a question of how her body is holding up. We have to re-evaluate almost on a daily basis, but considering how little she has played over the last few months she is doing extremely well, no matter what happens. She is looking better every day. I am certainly not looking beyond Wimbledon, though perhaps she is."

Right now, Steffi is certainly not looking beyond celebrating her birthday in England today.

Then perhaps she will think about tomorrow. Meantime, happy birthday Steffi.