Year of the comeback: The urge is still to be the best: Tennis

Steffi Graf: The perfectionist
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Steffi Graf's withdrawal from the Australian Open, which begins in a fortnight, has been interpreted as a setback to her comeback after knee surgery. But that is to draw the wrong conclusion.

Admittedly, she will not have proved anything until she plays a couple of tournaments and gives some idea of whether she can recapture her best form, but her explanation for missing Melbourne gives a clear insight into her state of mind. "After such a long absence I don't feel in good enough form to do myself justice," she said in a brief statement issued through her manager. For "do myself justice" read "be the best again".

Comebacks can broadly be divided into two types - "give it a whirl and see what happens" or "I'm only going to do this if I can be the best" - and Graf is just not interested in the first. One can be pretty certain that if she feels she cannot add to her 21 Grand Slam titles (just three behind Margaret Court's all-time record), she will withdraw gracefully.

Of the many elements it takes to be a Grand Slam champion, the 28-year- old German still has most. Her will to win is unlikely to be diminished (partly because there seems no obvious post-playing career), her ability to hold her nerve on the big points is likely to come back, her fitness and footwork will be among the best, and she will still have the aura of being the great Steffi Graf, at least for the first couple of months.

Which leaves two factors on which her comeback will ultimately stand or fall: her health, and whether the women's game has moved on in her absence.

Always in great athletic shape (many believe she could have been a world- class 800-metre runner), Graf's career has been threatened for several years by a back injury. Yet it was a persistent injury to her left knee which caused her to undergo serious surgery last June. Assuming the surgery has been successful and the eight-month absence from the tour has allowed her back some much-needed rest, her health may be perfectly adequate for another couple of years at the top of women's tennis.

News from the Graf camp in Florida, where she was practising over Christmas, has been almost non-existent, and her coach, Heinz Guenthardt, has learned to give little away, but the implication from last week's statement is that health and fitness are not a problem at this stage.

The question of whether the women's game might have overtaken Graf is more complex. When she was trounced 6-2 6-2 in the semi-finals of the 1994 French Open by a red-hot Mary Pierce, Graf looked to be yesterday's player. Her once-blistering forehand could only just keep pace with Pierce, and her sliced backhand looked woefully inadequate to withstand the power game which now dominates women's tennis.

The writing on the wall proved premature. Graf took three Grand Slam titles in both 1995 and 1996 (missing both Australian Opens through injury), and it would be simplistic to assume that just because she rarely hits through her backhand she can't hold her own with the power hitters. But returning in 1998 she could find the game has moved up half a gear. The ferocity with which Martina Hingis and Venus Williams hit the ball in September's US Open final suggest that they - plus Anna Kournikova, Mirjana Lucic and other members of their burgeoning generation - are taking the game to a new level.

But they are not there yet, and for the next year or two, it seems safe to assume that a healthy and match-tough Graf need fear none of her competitors - bar one. When Hingis took over Graf's No 1 ranking on 31 March, one could have said she was keeping the German's seat warm. Not any more.

The Swiss has developed into a player who looks capable of emulating Graf's achievements over the next 10 years. She has just about every shot, tremendous disguise, deceptive power, and a great sense of fun. Only in two departments - experience and natural athleticism - is Graf ahead of the 17-year-old.

Though she is unlikely to admit it, the measuring stick for Graf in her comeback will be whether she can stick with Hingis. Tennis in general would profit immensely from a year or two of rivalry, but the ball is in Graf's court. She has lost just once to Hingis in six meetings, but that means nothing now.

Graf is now due to make her return at a top-level tour event - with Hingis present - in Tokyo on 2 February. If she feels she is ready to win, she will play - if she doesn't, she won't. That is the nature of Graf, and her comeback.