WIMBLEDON '95: Graf on a new curve

Six months ago the world's top woman player faced the end of her career; in June she won the French Open title. Simon O'Hagan charts her return to the peak
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BY THE end of the fortnight, Steffi Graf and the court-sweeper were very nearly an item. He was not there to fraternise with the players, of course. His job was simply to run his broom along the white lines to clear them of loose clay.

But as Graf progressed through the field to the French Open title earlier this month, so an unlikely bond was formed. She would gather up her rackets at the end of a match, begin to walk off the Centre Court, and there he would be - a friendly young man with a neat moustache and an outstretched hand.

For Graf, there was no standing on ceremony. Just because he was a mere member of the Roland Garros ground-staff she was not going to stop her hand meeting his in a celebratory gesture that was equally natural on both sides. By the time Graf beat Conchita Martinez in the semi-final, this vignette of post-match togetherness involving the millionaire superstar and the humble worker had become a regular feature.

Graf, though, has always preferred private to public, the small but meaningful to the grand but empty. And as she goes into her 11th Wimbledon, less than two weeks after her 26th birthday, she has more cause than ever to value her triumphs following a year in which she was close to being forced to give up the game she has dominated for much of her 13 years as a professional.

When Graf steps out to meet 14-year-old Martina Hingis - a future Graf herself, perhaps - in the first round of the Championships this week she will do so as much in a spirit of relief as expectation. "When you don't know if you are going to be able to play, it really makes you appreciate it when you can," she said last week.

A year ago Graf went into Wimbledon with a slightly different attitude - not blase about her tennis, for she could never be that. But the first- round defeat she suffered at the hands of Lori McNeil - the first time the defending champion had been beaten at that stage in Wimbledon history - never looked as disastrous to her as it did to some. There were enough good reasons for what happened - the quality of the opposition, the gusting wind, the way the ball kept low on the damp surface - for Graf to be able to rationalise it. "It didn't hurt like some defeats," she said.

The real pain, however, was yet to come. The rest of Graf's year was overshadowed by a long-standing back problem which became very serious. Originally diagnosed as a hairline fracture, it turned out to be caused by a bone spur in her lower back, a stress condition that results when two vertebrae begin to rub together. It flared up in September during the US Open, never more so than in the final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, which Graf lost after winning the first set 6-1.

It was now, according to her coach, Heinz Gunthardt, that "it looked like she maybe would never be able to play again the way she did before. She obviously could play social tennis and be decent, but to play and be No 1 in the world ..." The very idea of Graf wandering along to her local club on a Sunday morning for a couple of sets of doubles before flopping down with the newspapers and a long drink was hard to visualise.

In November, Graf tried to ignore the problem by taking part in the end- of-year Virginia Slims championship in New York. But it was no good. She lost to Mary Pierce in the quarter-finals. An operation might have been the answer, but Graf felt she was too young for the major surgery it would have involved, and in December, through treatment, it got better. But injuries caused by compensating for the condition were always a danger, and that is what happened as she prepared for the Australian Open in January, which she missed because of calf trouble.

By the time Graf returned to action in an indoor tournament in Paris in February, having played only four sets of tennis in five months, a fast-moving world already seemed to be leaving her behind. Normally, Graf's return would have been top of the bill; instead, the centre of attention was Pierce, making a triumphant homecoming after her victory in the Australian Open a fortnight before - a result which meant that, for the first time since 1987, Graf was in possession of none of the four Grand Slam titles.

Under the circumstances, what Graf has achieved in the four months that have followed, when her back has meant she has had to limit her appearances, has been remarkable. Not only did she beat Pierce 6-2 6-2 in the Paris final, neatly reversing the score by which Pierce had blown Graf off the court in the 1994 French Open semi-finals, but she has gone on to win all four of her subsequent tournaments, culminating in the French two weeks ago.

None of Graf's fitness problems went away. Indeed, the six weeks leading up to the French saw her laid low for most of the time. Her back played up again and a bout of flu forced her to pull out of the Berlin tournament - a big blow because that would have been her only appearance this year in her home country. Yet in spite of her clay-court preparation being almost non-existent, and picking up a virus in Paris, she still came through to win the title. How was she able to remain so competitive? "It's in her fabric," says Pam Shriver, now one of the game's senior figures. "She's just very driven. All champions are like that when they've won one or two Grand Slams. It just sets off this desire. It's never enough. Look at Martina, or Chrissie."

Gunthardt was asked whether the French was her most amazing win. "Absolutely. She always told me that she might not have so much ability, but she had great ability to work. Of course, she's wrong. She has the ability to work, but she also has great ability. And I think this proves it without any doubt. Because without a lot of ability and talent, natural talent, you cannot come into a tournament like this and win it with the preparation she had. It's impossible."

SIX years ago, at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini were drawn against a couple of young home players, Rennae Stubbs and Kate McDonald, in the first round of the women's doubles.

Stubbs could hardly believe what was happening. There she was, a 17-year Sydney girl, still playing in the junior event in singles and only in the senior doubles because she and McDonald had been given a wild card, sharing a court with the great Steffi. It was like bumping into the Queen in Sainsbury's.

Consider what Graf had achieved in the year before that encounter: the first Grand Slam since Margaret Court's in 1970, becoming only the fifth woman to achieve the feat, and, to cap it all, the Olympic tennis title in Seoul. The Golden Slam, it was being called, and there she was back where it had begun 12 months previously, the game's newest, brightest star, spreading awe among her opponents.

"It was a funny match," Stubbs, now 24, recalled during the DFS Classic in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago. "I was just totally a jokester around the court because I simply couldn't handle the situation. It was so big - playing against the best players in the world.

"Kate and I basically got our butts kicked, but a couple of funny things happened during the match and afterwards I was still joking around with Steffi. We talked a little bit as the week went on and I was wishing her good luck and she would ask how I was doing, so we just kept in contact.

"I'm a pretty open person, so I didn't really have a problem approaching her, and it was probably a surprise to her that someone was nice enough and had the guts to think she was normal. I mean that's how I approached her. She's a human being and I thought she was very interesting, so I tried to get to know her. She was only 19 herself. People forget - when kids are that young they want to talk, they don't want to be alone out there."

Six and a half years on, Stubbs is Graf's best friend on the tour - according to Graf's fellow German Anke Huber, "the only player she has a close relationship with". That may be less a reflection of Graf's insularity than the difficulty of forming friendships on the Tour.

Stubbs is an obvious choice of companion in one way; as somebody who has never been ranked higher than 77 in the world, she presents no competitive threat to her friend. But there are lots of lowly players like Stubbs, tramping the foothills while Graf gazes down from the summit. There must be more to her appeal than that. "I make her laugh, I guess," Stubbs said. "I'm just a totally different person from her. That's why she likes me."

Stubbs is known for being a bit of a character. When a tournament needs a woman who is prepared to make a fool of herself in a charity match, Stubbs is more than likely the player they will turn to first. In Birmingham, for example, it was she who made up a four with Lori McNeil, the No 1 seed, Daley Thompson and Kriss Akabusi for a set's worth of fund-raising silliness that would have been impossible for Graf, yet in no way seemed to compromise Stubbs's dignity. Stubbs is a real sport: generous, down- to-earth, loyal - what Enid Blyton would call "a brick".

Her friendship with Stubbs illuminates a side to Graf's character the public seldom sees. Although Graf herself says, "I've changed a little bit over the years. It's been a natural change. Your confidence grows, but then I've met a lot of people. I've learnt to be more outgoing. I've friends who take me out of myself, and I need that, absolutely. I can't be on the court or talking about tennis all the time."

The events of the past year have undoubtedly altered her outlook on life, adding a measure of expansiveness to her character at a time when Graf the player is being threatened with premature shut-down. In spite of playing well below her best at the French Open - Graf's own sense of having got away with it was palpable - she was noticeably relaxed and open in press conferences, her self-deprecating humour used to winning effect. The distant Garbo-esque figure shielded by her long blonde hair seemed to have been left behind.

So too, some people believe, is the great player of her glory years in the late Eighties. After the Martinez semi-final, a rueful Carlos Kirmayr, the Spaniard's coach, said: "It would have been a good time to beat her. She was definitely beatable." So what's the problem? "You keep thinking about who this is on the other side of the net," Anke Huber said. "She has a scary last name," Kirmayr added. "Her image is stronger than her game."

Whether this should encourage Graf's opponents or not is debatable. On the one hand, according to Kirmayr, there is the player with exploitable technical weaknesses, on the other the still-ferocious competitor who wins the psychological battle before the first ball is struck. Certainly for a player who has won 16 Grand Slam titles, her game is surprisingly open to question, not least from herself. But Graf has always been honest in her self-analysis.

Graf's game is shrewdly assessed in the newly published Arthur Ashe on Tennis (Aurum, pounds 9.99), a collection of fascinating observations on all aspects of the game, based on a series of interviews conducted with the former Wimbledon and US Open champion in 1991 and 1992. He recognised the combination of qualities that make her an enduring champion: "Graf's forehand and her speed are her big weapons. She also has a champion's drive, discipline and desire, ingredients that enable her to keep winning even though she has achieved so much already.

"Graf has great timing on her forehand, which lets her generate terrific racket-head speed for a lot of power. At times she looks like she hits her forehand late, and she sometimes does meet the ball farther back in the contact zone than the ideal. If your feet are there in time, which Graf's always are, you can afford to be a little late with the swing."

Gunthardt was pressed on the flaws in Graf's famed forehand after it had let her down a lot in the final against Sanchez at the Roland Garros. "If you want to get really technical, she has a tendency to jump about a lot. And when she's in the air and jumps straight up and the ball happens to bounce just a touch wrong, her timing is off. Because it's like Fred Flintstone - if you're in the air, you can't move. You're not going anywhere."

The Graf backhand can also be problematic. It is the side opponents generally hit to, and Graf nearly always responds with a sliced return. It is a great backhand slice all right - often cited as one of the best of its kind in the history of the women's game - but there are times when something hit flat or with top-spin is called for, and it doesn't happen.

Pam Shriver remembers beating Graf a few years ago "by going a ton on her backhand". She puts it in perspective, though. "You can find fault in any champion. If only Borg had had a better volley, if only McEnroe had had a more even temperament. I would not, for example, have wanted to see Steffi improve the backhand at the expense of the forehand. She has a shot there that people fear. It has a strangling effect on opponents. And it's amazing how you can improve in one area and then lose it in another." No player is perfect, and if Graf is slightly more imperfect than the few others who can match her achievements, then she retains the distinctiveness to ensure a place in the pantheon.

Not that she seems very interested in immortality. She has only two more Grand Slam titles to go to equal the 18 won by both Navratilova and Evert, yet when this was pointed out to her after the French Open, she professed to be quite unaware of it. Navratilova's "sense of history" - never worn very lightly - is something Graf does not lay claim to. She knows that it would sound false for her to start invoking the spirit of Helen Wills Moody.

Shriver thinks Graf may not be around for more than another two or three years, adding that it would be nice from the point of view of the women's game if it were longer. And with the return of Monica Seles on the horizon, you can see the need for someone to provide decent competition for her.

But Graf does not involve herself much in the cause of women's tennis - the legacy of her shyness and an upbringing which discouraged self-promotion. To Graf, celebrity is an unfortunate by-product of success. "I will never be used to it," she says. And then there is all that small talk. "She'll do it," Stubbs says, "but she's not really interested in superficialities." Graf only sees tennis for what it is - the pleasure of competition and hitting a ball - while Navratilova seemed to glimpse destiny when she drew back her racket.

Listening to Rennae Stubbs struggling to find better words than "extraordinarily nice" to describe her friend, it becomes clear that the level on which Graf operates best is the personal. She belongs to nobody except herself, her family and friends. Her family, especially, which was why the scandal that broke in the wake of her father's alleged affair with a model five years ago had such a profound effect on her and nearly drove her to give up the game.

There is also her boyfriend: Michael Bartels, a racing driver like Graf's brother Michael, the man with whom she has just bought an apartment in Heidelberg to go with that in Boca Raton, Florida, and the loft in New York's SoHo. It's good for Steffi, people say, to have her own place in Germany other than the parental home in Bruhl. It's helped make her more independent.

Graf doesn't talk about Michael Bartels. They have rarely even been photographed together. Rennae Stubbs says: "He's a really great guy. That's all I'll say. She is trying to keep at least half of her life private." Graf's future remains a blank canvas. She says she has plans, but won't reveal them. For now she would settle for a friendly word of congratulation from a passing Wimbledon court sweeper.