Tennis; Desolate Graf talks of ordeal

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The Independent Online
Steffi Graf is here, seeking refuge from what she describes as "the unhappiest time of my life" the only way she knows how: by playing tennis. Whether the Wimbledon champion returns to Britain in the future depends on the state of a chronic back injury and her ability to deal with the strain of a German tax investigation into her earnings, which has led to the imprisonment of her father.

During a break from preparations to compete in the Brighton International women's tournament tomorrow, the 26-year-old Graf explained what it has been like for her to be at the centre of controversy. "You just can't get away from it," she said. "You sit in the car with the radio on. There's news every five minutes, and you are always in it. You turn on the TV, and it's just there constantly. There's a chat show on, and they're discussing whether you should be sent to jail or not. There's no way of escaping it."

There is one way, but Graf has not been fit enough to compete on the WTA Tour since defeating Monica Seles in the final of the United States Open almost six weeks ago. "Being here is like a little holiday for me right now," she said. "I'm happy to get away. Tennis right now gives me the break of not having constantly to talk to lawyers. Tennis is what I'm living for right now, nothing else."

Asked if she had considered leaving the sport in order to take herself out of the public eye, she said: "How am I supposed to drop out of the public eye? I didn't give any statements. I didn't do anything which would put me in the public eye more than any other time in my life."

One consequence of the tax investigation was the loss yesterday of Graf's pounds 650,000 Opel sponsorship. The German car company said: "We do not question her integrity. It's problems with her management."

Graf arrived in England on Sunday evening, ending a week of speculation that injury would cause her to miss the Brighton event for the third year consecutively. Her first appointment yesterday at Blatchington Mill School, Hove, answering questions about her tennis life from pupils, some of whom will be ball-girls at the tournament.

"It's been so crazy at home," she said. "I heard from other people that apparently I'd concelled the tournament, but it was someone just starting to spread rumours around. I've not had the greatest preparation, but I never felt I wasn't going to play here.

"I didn't touch a racket for two and a half weeks after the US Open. When I did start back, I did a lot of conditioning. For the first time in a long time I was able to lift a lot of weights. I have a lot more strength all over and feel fitter than I have done for a long time. Before that I couldn't even do the gym exercises because my back was hurting. The last few days I've been able to run like I haven't been able to run for years."

It would appear that periods of rest after the more demanding tournaments will become the norm for however long Graf decides to continue her career. "Since Houston, in April, when I took some time off, I really haven't had much time off. My life has been so busy I really couldn't concentrate the way I wanted to do."

Had she experienced as much hassle around her home in Germany as she did outside her New York apartment during the US Open? "It hasn't been too bad for me - even if they tried to catch up on me they didn't stand a chance."

The organisers of the Brighton tournament are enormously relieved that Graf is in town. It is the 18th and last occasion the event will take place, having been squeezed out of the calendar by lack of sponsorship and dwindling interest. Graf has won the title six times, starting in 1986.

Britain's only winner was Sue Barker, in 1981. Jo Durie was the runner- up to Chris Evert in 1983 after defeating Pam Shriver in the semi-finals. The only home players in the draw this week are Clare Wood, from Sussex, who has been given a wild card, and Sam Smith, from Essex, who fought through the qualifying tournament, a commendable effort after being out of the game for three years while studying for a degree in history.