The pain game: It's what the Germans call weltschmerz - and as she prepares to defend her title in the 100th women's singles Steffi Graf is suffering from it. Guy Hodgson reports

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IT IS the daft questions that sometimes bring out the best answers in sportsmen and women programmed with a pre-packed replies to the obvious. After Steffi Graf had won the French Open at Roland Garros two weeks ago she was asked if it was a turning point. 'Where can I turn to now?' she returned with weary patience.

It is a subject that has assumed a heavy significance with the Wimbledon champion. The All England Club celebrates the 100th women's singles this fortnight, the bunting is out, the celebrations are being primed. And to all outward appearance the leading lady at the party seems thoroughly disillusioned. Where, indeed, does she turn to when the existence she leads seems to be losing its attraction?

Stefan Edberg, champion in 1988 and 1990, admits there are times when he hates tennis. 'For 90 per cent of the time I love it,' he says, 'but there are moments when I think, 'God, why do I have to put up with all this?' Practising hard, dealing with the pressure.' It is evident that Graf has entered the dark 10 per cent.

How else do you explain her reaction after beating Mary Joe Fernandez in the French final? She had just won her 12th grand slam tournament, yet her manner was thoroughly downbeat. 'I'm tired. I need a rest,' she explained inadequately for a mood that was worse than it had been 12 months earlier when she had lost a classic final against Monica Seles. Then the depression of defeat had been extinguished when she looked forward to Wimbledon and potential revenge. This time, there seemed liitle to anticipate with relish.

Graf, who has been at tennis's peak since 1987 and was climbing to that point before that, is world-weary in the way many great champions eventually seem to become. It can either be the prelude to retirement, or represent the down point on the springboard. The odds are in favour of Graf's yet assuming new heights, but not so much that people are not speculating how much longer she will go on.

'Sometimes I feel old,' Graf said. 'I have been around for 10 years now and tennis seems to get younger and younger. Players get burnt out at 24, 25, 26. I don't think you will see players like Martina (Navratilova) and Chris (Evert) any more.' Graf was 24 on 14 June.

There is also no doubt that the knife attack on Seles 10 weeks ago sparked Graf's current bout of self-absorption. The German was deeply shamed that the motive of the maniac in Hamburg had been to remove Seles, the world No 1, in order that Graf could assume her former pre-eminence. And quite apart from her concern at the prospect of copy-cat violence, it has depressed Graf to think that something as ultimately trivial as hitting a ball with a tennis racket could provoke such a threat. The knife had not struck Graf, but she was a victim too.

In addition, the removal of Seles has taken away one of Graf's principal incentives. Before she had a target to aim at, a brilliant opponent to overcome. In her formative years there were Evert and Navratilova, then there was Seles. The rest can beat her occasionally but not so often that she feels challenged. The French Open was won with just the occasional glimpse of inspiration and only an ageing Navratilova and Graf's own mental and physical worries seem to stand in the way of a third successive Wimbledon title.

She has also hinted darkly at other problems, one of which was the health of her mother, Heidi, who is recovering from a back operation. There is something else, too. 'There have been incidents at home,' she said. What? 'I don't answer that one.'

It all contrasts with the vibrant figure who occasionally plays tennis stamped with the mark of genius. Graf may be weighed down with concern but she still dances lightly around the court. Her feet move like a flyweight boxer's; so quickly she is hardly ever caught off balance. Twice in Paris she assumed her full pomp, when her forehand sang and her backhand strokes toyed and teased opponents. Against Jennifer Capriati and Anke Huber it was the old Graf. 'She didn't make any errors,' Capriati moaned after her 6-3 7-5 quarter- final defeat. 'She hit everything straight off the bat. It is hard when you are being pressured, everything is rushed. You get a chance and you feel you have to take it because you are not going to get another one for a long time.'

Heinz Guenthardt, her coach of 18 months, said that match showed just how her game is going. 'She hits the ball better. She sells her game better, varies it a bit more. Now there are three or four shots in a row that make sense and leave her opponent five metres from the ball. There was no boomer or anything, nothing to go wow, wow, wow, just a succession of shots that put Capriati out of position.

'People pointed out that she didn't hit a top-spin backhand and it led to her thinking that a slice is automatically a defensive shot. It's not true at all. In the old days the best backhand in the world was Ken Rosewall's and his was a slice.

'Now she approaches shots on her backhand differently. She now moves people around. She can hit it short, she can hit deep, she can move in on it. To have a slice like hers is a great shot.'

Guenthardt says he has not noticed a decline in the wake of the Seles attack, although, as a coach, he would not say even if he did. 'She was affected,' he says. 'She would be inhuman if she wasn't, but she's a tough girl. A lot of things have happened to her and she just keeps on playing. It's one of the reason's why she's a great player. On day X, when the match starts, she's there. She's been doing it for a lot of years and that's very difficult.'

Not as difficult as reading the conflicting signals coming from his employer. In Paris she talked about overtaking Chris Evert's record of 72 victories at Roland Garros - she now has 54 - her confidence declining with every word. 'Yes, it is possible to beat,' she said. 'I think so. I don't know.'

Wimbledon is her favourite tournament, the four singles titles she has won there her most precious. She says she has 'no idea' how many more years she will continue to play but if her low spirits linger through a victory in the final then others might have a better clue. Not much longer.

----------------------------------------------------------------- WOMEN'S SINGLES ROLL OF HONOUR ----------------------------------------------------------------- 99 Championships, 35 Champions 9 Martina Navratilova, US (1978, 79, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 90) 8 Helen Wills Moody, US (1927, 28, 29, 30, 32, 33, 35, 38) 7 Dorothea Lambert Chambers GB (1903, 04, 06, 10, 11, 13, 14) 6 Blanche Hillyard, GB (1886, 89, 94, 97, 99, 1900) Suzanne Lenglen, Fr (1919, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25) Billie Jean King, US (1966, 67, 68, 72, 73, 75) 5 Lottie Dod, GB (1887, 88, 91, 92, 93) Charlotte Cooper, GB (1895, 96, 98, 1901, 08) 4 Louise Brough, US (1948, 49, 50, 55) Steffi Graf, Ger (1988, 89, 91, 92) 3 Maureen Connolly, US (1952, 53, 54) Maria Bueno, Br (1959, 60, 64) Margaret Court, Aus (1963, 75, 70) Chris Evert, US (1974, 76, 81) 2 Maud Watson, GB (1884, 85) May Sutton, US (1905, 07) Kitty Godfree, GB (1924, 26) Dorothy Round, GB (1934, 37) Althea Gibson, US (1957, 59) Evonne Goolagong, Aus (1971, 80) 1 Helen Rice, GB (1890) Muriel Robb, GB (1902) Dora Boothby, GB (1909) Ethel Larcombe, GB (1912) Cilly Aussem, Ger (1931) Helen Jacobs, US (1936) Alice Marble, US (1939) Pauline Betz, US (1946) Margaret Osborne, US (1947) Doris Hart, US (1951) Shirley Fry, US (1956) Angela Mortimer, GB (1961) Karen Susman, US (1962) Ann Jones, GB (1969) Virginia Wade, GB (1977) -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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