EVEN allowing for the list of players who have fallen ill or injured during the first week of the Australian Open, the sight of Steffi Graf lying in front of the women's locker-room half an hour before she was due to play was startling. 'There's nothing wrong,' she said with a smile, 'it's just that I am taking care of my body.'
On the evidence of Graf's opening matches, against Kimberly Po, Nicole Provis and Barbara Rittner, she is in good shape. Stretching exercises prior to matches are part of her new fitness programme. Weight- training, often after she has played a match, is another innovation, something Graf refused to contemplate until her trainer, Helmut Muller, assured her that she would not become muscle-bound.
The world No 1 also has a new racket, having switched to Wilson from Dunlop. But the key is that she is finally free of pain. 'Last year was just a miracle really,' she said, recalling her triumphs at the French, Wimbledon and United States championships before undergoing surgery in October to have a bone splinter removed from her right foot. 'Every time I won a tournament, I couldn't believe it. Because of all the injuries, I wasn't able to practise the way I usually do.
'Even during the championships, I would go every morning to the doctor to get injections and take pills. It was very disturbing and depressing. I said, 'I don't want to do that anymore, I definitely have to change something'. I wanted to get healthy. My body had to be strengthened.' Muller revised Graf's fitness regimen during her rehabilitation at the Olympic Training Centre in Heidleberg. 'Now I can practise much longer and have weight training. I feel a big difference.'
Three down, four to go. The figures apply to Graf's progress here and her attitude to what consititutes a Grand Slam. To count, she insists, the feat must have been accomplished in a calendar year. The French, Wimbledon and United States titles belong to 1993. Winning here would represent a tentative start rather than a big finish.
Six years ago, when the magnificent National Tennis Centre opened, Graf took the first step to a 'Golden Grand Slam' of the four major titles and the Olympic gold. 'I'm better than I was in '88,' she said. 'I have a lot more shots. I play tactically better. Everybody has got better. That's why I have raised my level.' Only one thing is missing. 'I'm sure it is a difference with Monica (Seles) not being here, but I don't think about it now that I am playing the tournament.'
So far, Graf's concentration has wavered but once, in the concluding stages of her third-round match yesterday against Rittner, a compatriot. Windy conditions contributed to Graf's 39 unforced errors in winning, 6-2, 6-4. 'That is why the result was not 6-1, 6-0, or something,' Rittner admitted. 'I had a game plan, but it was not worth anything.' Provis, the second-round victim, said her arm hurt because Graf was hitting the ball so hard. Po retired when trailing 6-1, 2-0 in the first round, having attempted to chase Graf's shots while suffering from an abdominal strain.
Tomorrow brings a challenge for Sandrine Testud, a 21-year-old from France emboldened by her defeat of Helena Sukova, the No 13 seed, 6-3, 6-3. Sukova, it may be remembered, was beaten in straight sets by Graf in the final of last year's US Open. Testud, ranked No 115, has played Graf once before, in San Diego last August, achieving parity at 5-5 in the opening set before losing, 7-5, 6-1.
Provided Graf stays tough, she will face an American opponent in the quarter-finals. Mary Joe Fernandez, who came close to upsetting the German in the final of last year's French Open, meets the towering, 17-year-old Lindsay Davenport in the fourth round.
Sukova was not the only seed to be eliminated from Graf's half of the draw yesterday. The 19-year-old Anke Huber once again trailed in her compatriot's wake, defeated by the American Ginger Helgeson, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. Huber, the No 7 seed, virtually self-destructed, failing to convert three match points in the second set - double faulting on two of them - before losing the tie-break, 12-10. Helgeson will play the No 10 seed, Kimiko Date, of Japan, in the fourth round, the winner advancing to a quarter-final against either the third seed, Conchita Martinez, of Spain, or Chanda Rubin, a 17-year- old American.
In the men's singles, Goran Ivanisevic hit 20 aces in beating Aaron Krickstein, bringing his total to 50 in three matches. Ivan Lendl, who advanced to a fourth- round meeting with Pete Sampras, was fined dollars 1,000 ( pounds 668) for an audible obscenity during his match against Paul Haarhuis. Things seem to be warming up.
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