Tennis: Graf hopes for one last hurrah

The former world No 1 has won 21 Grand Slam titles but is still obsessed with Wimbledon. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
YOU CAN find symbolism in almost anything, journalists quicker than most, and when Steffi Graf removed her knee support five games into her latest comeback someone retorted: "Bandage off shock". Was she finally shedding the doubts that have surrounded her recent history?

Probably not. The wrapping was only a precaution, the seven-times Wimbledon champion said afterwards, covering herself with medical precision in layers of caution. "Anything could happen," she added. "You never know with me.''

You could say that again. The last six months have been a series of frustrated revivals. She aimed to be back for the Australian Open and was still not ready; she was due to fly to Tokyo but decided her knee needed more treatment just before the plane departed; when she did make it to the court three months ago she strained her left hamstring playing Lindsay Davenport in the semi-finals at Indian Wells, California.

Which brings her to the unlikely setting of the DFS Classic at Edgbaston Priory, an event which, with all due respect to a splendidly run tournament, would not not normally come within her compass. But when you are desperate to play you go where you last went as a prodigy at 15. Graf urgently requires to play at Wimbledon.

That was apparent when she was asked what ambitions could remain within a woman who with 21 Grand Slam singles titles lies only behind Margaret Court in the litany of greatness. "To play Wimbledon," she replied, not once but three times as if repetition would make it more likely to happen.

Turning 29 on Sunday, that is the far limit of her horizon. Could she be No 1 again? "I don't even think about it." What about Court's record? The prospect was so far fetched she did not even grant it a reply. Just a raising of the eyebrows and a squeak of exasperation. "My goal is to enjoy what I'm doing," she said eventually.

Enjoy what she is doing. There have been times in recent years when that prospect seemed improbable if not impossible as fate has conspired to make her recent life away from the court a series of trials. Literally so as her father, Peter, has only recently been released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for tax evasion.

That would hit anyone hard, but Peter Graf was his daughter's coach and mentor in her too-brief formative years. A fierce task master he was, too, constantly pushing, demanding more and more. How much that urgency was fuelled by his addiction to alcohol and prescripted drugs only he will know but the German press's nickname for him was "Papa Merciless". Even now, though, his daughter's loyalty is rock solid. "When you know what alcohol and tablets can do to a person," she said once, "it's difficult to be angry.''

Forgiveness costs nothing, but Steffi Graf has paid all right. Around a reported pounds 10m in back taxes and legal fees as a result of her father's transgressions and while it would be an exaggeration to describe her as hard up she has put up property in New York and Florida for sale.

Yet through all the tribulations she seemed to find peace on the tennis court even if she sometimes found the press conferences afterwards an intrusion. In 1995 and 1996, when her father was either in court or on remand, she won six Grand Slams (the French, the US and Wimbledon twice each). Compared to Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce, two would-be successors who imploded mentally thanks partly to filial obligation, her concentration, her ability to leave her problems behind, was little short of miraculous.

Yet, for a woman whose mind has always had the determination to succeed on court it is a cruel joke that her body has not been as strong. Her back, groin, legs, feet, ankles and even sinuses have crippled her at regular intervals almost from the moment she turned professional in 1982 four months after her 13th birthday. God gave with her talent and iron will, but also took something away.

The grating, painful halt came 12 months ago when her left knee finally succumbed to the punishment it had endured since she started playing as a four year old. At first she was diagnosed as having an inflamed patellar but later it was discovered she had ruptured the tendon and fractured the cartilage.

"After that kind of of thing nobody can tell you what's going to happen next, whether it's going to work out," she said. "It was a big operation, mechanically they'd changed something, so I knew I'd struggle but I didn't expect to be as severe as it has been. Yes, I had doubts whether I'd make it.''

Her months of rehabilitation in Austria were enlivened by trips to Vienna to concerts and galleries, the sort of things that her success had never given time to do before. Comebacks in Hanover and Florida were cut short but at least there was hope of progress.

The process this past few weeks has been a tentative one. Graf felt she rushed her comeback at Indian Wells and suffered accordingly and spent time in London last week working on grass before deciding to come to Birmingham, confirming her entry only last Saturday.

Even then she hid behind a veil of security provided by her coach Heinz Gunthardt her mother, Heidi, and three other members of her entourage. She would arrive at Edgbaston at 8am, practise for a few hours and then disappear to a city centre hotel, ready to be called out if the miserable weather relented.

When she did peep out from behind the cloak, for her first match against Rennae Stubbs, she looked thinner than before. There was no padding a la Monica Seles, who went into retirement after her stabbing a sylph- like figure and came out of it pounds heavier, just the support for her knee as evidence of her recent distress.

When that was discarded it lay bare a game that had become stiff through neglect. "My forehand will always be there," she said, "but I was struggling with my serve. I have to loosen up a little bit and just go for it.

"I'm doing my normal training regime even if play matches. In fact I'm probably doing more than I normally do and with another 10 days I'll get physically stronger. I do feel I'm getting better. I need to play points which I haven't done too much yet. That's why I decided to come here. I felt it was maybe a bit too early but I have to play some matches.''

Edgbaston, where she beat Kristie Boogert 6-2, 6-4 yesterday, and Eastbourne will provide that and after that, if her body holds out, Wimbledon. Two more titles and she will equal Martina Navratilova's record of nine and still possesses - big serve, booming forehand - the definitive grass court game. It is tantalisingly close if, in all probability, unrealistic.

"For now I'm still enjoying tennis as much and I'm just as eager," she said, "but maybe I don't take things as seriously as I did at different points of my career. If you have achieved so much already it is not a must.''

Oh no? Working this hard to play at Wimbledon suggests something is lurking within the German's soul. A walk-on, walk-off part at the All England Club is unlikely to be it. Maybe the doubts are clearing after all.