Tennis: Ice-maiden Graf warms to life as a sentimental favourite

John Roberts on the changing role of a tennis champion turned underdog
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WHILE determined to return to the showpieces of the French Open and Wimbledon, which falls the week after her 29th birthday on 14 June, Steffi Graf is adamant that she has nothing to prove, not even to herself. "My goal is to enjoy what I am doing out there," she said yesterday, "everything else, I have done before."

The former world No 1 is second only to Australia's Margaret Court, who leads the German 24-21 in terms of Grand Slam singles titles. "I want to do well at the Grand Slam tournaments, that is for sure," Graf said, "but in terms of breaking a record, no, that is not anything that I believe I can get close to."

Graf was addressing questions during a conference call prior to her match last night against Lindsay Davenport, the American world No 2, in the semi-finals of the Evert Cup at Indian Wells, California. It is only the second tournament Graf has played since undergoing knee surgery after losing to Amanda Coetzer in quarter-finals of the French Open last June.

Defeated by Sabine Appelmans last month in the third round of her comeback event in Hannover, Graf is ranked No 45 in the world. At the time of her injury she was the world No 3, and the WTA Tour decided that this would be Graf's status for the purpose of seeding when she made a comeback. The position will be reviewed during her next tournament, the Lipton Championships at Key Biscayne, Florida, which start next Thursday.

Graf is entitled to regard every match she completes without physical mishap as a bonus, particularly bearing in mind the fears that her career might have been over when she missed Wimbledon and the United States Open last year and was unable to compete at the Australian Open at the beginning of this year.

"I'm happy with the way it is going," Graf said, "but I am not asking myself to win any specific tournaments and I am not going to be unhappy if things don't fall into place, because I am trying and I can only try the best I can. I have a lot of room for improvement. I still think that I will be able to move around the court better and probably find a little more security around my game."

Her months of rehabilitation in Austria were relieved by interesting diversions. "I spent a lot of time close to Vienna. I kept myself busy going to plays, or going to concerts. I saw U2 and I saw David Bowie, Fiddler on the Roof, and went to the circus. I went to galleries and to a great exhibition in Vienna. And I spent a lot of time at home, actually making new friends and meeting new people, finally having time for my friends and my dogs."

Perceived as imperturbable during a record number of 374 weeks as the world No 1 and when winning Wimbledon on seven occasions, Graf is now experiencing the strange sensation of being a sentimental favourite.

"It has been extremely emotional," she said. "People have been so supportive, saying they love for me to be back and hope I am going to make it. I have been a little emotional and nervous in the start of my matches, but then I seem to find my rhythm. I have never been somebody who was very nervous or anxious to go out there, but that has changed a little.

"It has been a little bit intimidating playing with the crowd behind you, at least in the beginning, when you walk on the court and people are cheering for you, especially in Hannover, and here during the first match. It has been different, and it makes me think what I went through in the last few months to get to that point, and that kind of makes me happy to be able to go through a moment like that."