THE LOOMING, dark green structure of Wimbledon's Centre Court has acted as a solid comfort and a reminder to Steffi Graf as she worked out at the All England Club for the past 10 days, honing her grass-court game for tomorrow's 14th tilt at the world's premier tennis tournament.
Seven times in those 14 campaigns Steffi has hoisted the giant golden tray which is the symbol of supremacy in the women's game. If she needed any reassurance in those recent few days, as she worked out with her coach, Heinz Gunthardt, a glance over at the place she calls "my other home" would have sufficed.
Steffi swept into London on a tidal wave of euphoria following her incredible victory in the final of the French Open. After that, what on earth can she do for an encore? Win Wimbledon, that's what.
Graf passed 30 last Monday, celebrating her birthday quietly in London. The shadows are lengthening on a career that has been depressingly injury- plagued in recent years, but Paris boosted her dreams of one more day in the spotlight at SW19. Having gone to Roland Garros with nothing more ambitious in mind than a good work-out in readiness for Wimbledon, Steffi came away clutching her 22nd Grand Slam singles prize and telling everyone the moment meant so much to her that she would never play there again.
So, then, Steffi, if you win Wimbledon will it also be your farewell to the grand old place? The straight bat, at which she is so practised, is produced. "My decision about the French was a sudden thing. I went into that tournament without any belief in the way I was playing. Winning the title was so very special that I want to keep that as my last memory of Roland Garros. Wimbledon? You never know. It could be my last one but I'm not thinking about that right now. I don't want to start talking about something which may not happen. Two years ago Boris Becker said it was his last Wimbledon, yet here he is again. I am a person who sticks to her word."
The likelihood is that, should she win her eighth title, hauling her level with Helen Wills Moody and one short of Martina Navratilova's record, Graf will bid farewell. Like Paris, nothing could possibly top that after all the pain and medication. Steffi has been peering at the end of the road for three years now, facing enforced retirement because in that time her body has been held together by nothing more than fortitude. So another Wimbledon would be a perfect time to lower the curtain, thumbing her nose at the surgeons.
Graf has never been a conscious amasser of honours. "I don't wake up every day and think about which tournaments I won and which titles I hold," she said. "It's something I don't care about." Naturally, she is aware of the major statistics - 22 Grand Slams, 107 titles, more than 1,000 singles matches since her professional debut in October, 1982. Even the fact that, rather like Manchester United in Barcelona, a late flourish could carry her to glory and eclipse Margaret Court's mark of 24 Grand Slams, does not enthuse her. If it happens, so be it. Wimbledon, here and now, is what she hungers for.
A personal insight into what Wimbledon means to the lady came moments after she had beaten Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to win in 1996. Your correspondent, returning in haste along one of Centre Court's outer corridors in pursuit of an urgent deadline, was shouldered aside by a sweaty, whooping blonde. Graf had done a Pat Cash, sprinting off court before the presentation ceremony could begin to race round the back stairs to the VIP box and embrace her loved ones.
If winning meant that much three years ago, imagine the driving force now after being forced to miss 1997 because of a knee operation and going out to the journeywoman Natasha Zvereva in the third round last year when she was by some distance short of match fitness.
After the Paris win over Martina Hingis, still a little muzzy from celebratory champagne, Steffi was asked about the next stop. "I will be even more excited than usual to go to Wimbledon," she said. "Victory here has obviously given me a lot of confidence; it told me a lot about myself. Grass is a surface I have always loved, Wimbledon is a tournament I have always loved. I am already looking forward to it."
Now the expectation is at an end, the combat about to commence. Having been elevated to third in the world rankings by the Paris result, Graf has found herself further boosted by Wimbledon's decision to seed her, rather than the world No 2 Lindsay Davenport, second. Had this been the act of some workaday tournament, rather than The All England Club's august seeding committee, the suspicion would have been that they wanted, at any price, to try for a rerun of that unforgettable French final. Away, vile thoughts!
Since taking her leave of Paris Graf has doubtless been walking as if on eggshells, clutching assorted charms guaranteeing her continued (and new-found) good health. The first serious physical flaws in the finest female athlete of her generation came to light in early 1995 when back problems were diagnosed as a bone spur on her lower spine, a condition more normally found among women in their sixties. The facts of an operation, involving being opened up from the front, being too horrendous for a young woman to contemplate, Steffi opted to play on. Ever since then she has chosen, with reason, not to look beyond the next day, never mind the next match.
There had already been minor problems; a thumb broken on a skiing holiday in 1990, surgery to remove bone fragments from her right foot in 1993. But once Steffi opted to continue her career despite the back condition and she put extra stress on other parts of her body by attempting to favour her sacroiliac, the injuries went into free flow. There was another bone spur problem, this time in her left foot, cured by an operation in December 1995, after which she managed the light-hearted comment: "It is not usual to get that many bone spurs, so it has to be something my body likes to do to me."
Her body had other nasty surprises in store. An ailing patella tendon was the precursor of the most serious operation yet, on her left knee in June 1997, after a year of playing in pain. Recuperation caused her to miss the next four Grand Slams and when she came back, at Indian Wells in March last year, she immediately damaged a hamstring. Two months later her right ankle went and she was an easy Wimbledon victim for Zvereva, the woman who normally approached their encounters like a rabbit trapped in headlights.
Still the list of injuries stretched on. After a fourth-round exit at the US Open, Graf was on the operating table again. Another bone spur, this time in her wrist. No wonder she offers this advice: "If you go to a big city anywhere in the world and you need a doctor, just ask me. I can tell you who's good and who's bad. I've even considered writing a guidebook."
There have been other, off-court tribulations, with the trial and jailing of her father, Peter, for tax evasion and the involvement of Graf herself in allegations about tax and appearance money, all subsequently sorted out to the satisfaction of the German authorities.
But it was the on-court absence of Graf, particularly in the eight months following her knee operation, which helped to force the flowering of a new dynasty: first Davenport and then the teen battalion of Hingis, Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters. It was an old rival, Monica Seles, who saw Graf off in the Australian Open quarter-finals in January but in her only 1999 final prior to Paris, Steffi was beaten at Indian Wells by Serena Williams, having led 3-1 in the deciding set, and then lost to Venus Williams in the Key Biscayne semi-finals. The young ones seemed to have taken her measure.
Three years ago Graf was adamant there was no way she could see herself playing on beyond 30. Now, that milestone in her wake, she says: "Age has changed my attitude. When you are younger you see somebody who is 30 and you think `Oh God, she's old, why is she still playing?' But once you get there you change your mind. Numbers aren't as important any more, it's how you feel inside."
How she currently feels inside can be summed up in a word: brilliant. Then chuck in another word: confident. To win the French Open for a sixth time Steffi became the first woman in the Open era to defeat the world's top three players in the same event, Hingis, Davenport and Seles. "Ever since my knee operation my career has been up and down," she said. "At the beginning of this year things didn't go so well. I've had some good times, some strange times. It's been a difficult road. Now I've been able to turn things around again, it has been incredible."
On her Wimbledon debut in 1985 aged 15, Graf got as far as the fourth round before losing to a certain Jo Durie. Fifteen years on, at her most successful as well as her favourite tournament, Steffi will present herself again for public examination, possibly for the last time. Those privileged to see her play will be watching one of the game's greats, a woman who reigned as number one for a record (men as well as women) 186 consecutive weeks, who was top of her trade for 377 weeks, also an all-gender record. She is right up there with Lenglen, Wills Moody, BJK, Connolly, Evert and Navratilova.
Now, at three in the rankings, Steffi Graf has sweated and strained - and wept quite a bit, too - as she clambered back to her best level since she was last number one, in March 1997. It has all been done with the next two weeks in mind. In Paris the crowd carried her to victory. At Wimbledon the support will be less raucous but there will be no doubting which player the spectators want to see thrusting aloft that golden tray.
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