July 13, 2005, 1:00AM
Animated Graf delights hardy crowd
Rain holds off long enough for former star to play in rare pro match
By SARAH HORNADAY
It wasn't a fairy-tale return to tennis for 22-time Grand Slam singles champ Steffi Graf, but you couldn't tell that to the fans at Westside Tennis Club.
Graf, in her first pro appearance since retiring in 1999, helped the Houston Wranglers rally against the Sacramento Capitals Tuesday in a World Team Tennis match. Sacramento needed overtime to beat Houston 20-18.
"It was a lot of fun," Graf said. "It was not as I expected it to be."
Graf was noticeably nervous before Tuesday's match. One of only three women to win all four tennis Grand Slam tournaments in the same year (1988), she started the night playing doubles with Ansley Cargill and also played mixed doubles with Mardy Fish.
Graf had even more time to think about her "one-time only" Team Tennis appearance when play was delayed one hour and eight minutes during the opening singles set between Fish and Sacramento's Mark Knowles.
"She feels a lot of responsibility to do well," Team Tennis co-founder Billie Jean King said. "I think it's great for the public to see her at all. She's not making a comeback."
Graf wasn't confident about playing singles against Elena Likhovtseva, who currently holds a No. 16 WTA ranking, since she has only practiced the last two weeks. But her teammates talked her into the match.
"They said just go out and enjoy it," Graf said.
The addition to singles pleased the Westside crowd. And Graf.
Graf's appearance, along with Sacramento's Anna Kournikova, attracted a paid attendance of 4,862 to Westside. The rain kept some fans from showing up, but those who attended received a treat in Graf's singles appearance.
"She put up a fight," Likhovteseva said. "She's the greatest player."
Graf lost 5-4 in a tiebreaker but played the night's closest set. After teaming with Cargill and losing 5-2 to Kournikova and Likhovtseva, Graf definitely appeared more at ease in singles.
After tying the set at 2-2 (each set is played to 5, before moving to the next set), she raised her racket to the crowd for cheers — and received plenty. She raised her arms in victory when a challenged call went her way. And she was all smiles — for most of the set.
Though not victorious, it was a triumphant return to tennis.
"Obviously she hasn't missed a beat," Fish said. "She showed how really good she is."