Re: Steffi Graf Admiration Thread Vol 2
Getting ahead in the timeline, but it fits better in the narrative here.
From Hamburg to Paris: Graf's Unrivaled Reign
May 20, 1994
New York Times
PARIS— "To tell you the truth, I was hoping it was not that way," Steffi Graf says. "I was hoping so badly, because I had that idea."
She was hoping the stabbing had not been planned for her benefit.
"Then, when I heard the next news, that probably a Yugoslav was the one who did it to her, I was a little ... " Graf stops; she doesn't want to admit this. "Tiny bit relieved," she says.
Because how could she live with it otherwise? It has been more than a year since the nightmare in Hamburg, but Graf is much more than one year older.
The latest French Open premieres Monday with all the suspense of a movie made out of a best-seller. Graf is the female lead, likely to win her fifth consecutive Grand Slam event, the fifth since Hamburg. She figures to be challenged mainly by the 1989 champion, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, and the 37-year-old Martina Navratilova, a two-time winner making her farewell after a five-year absence from these clay courts, her least favorite surface.
But most of all, Graf will be dogged by her co-star, Monica Seles. Her attacker was not Yugoslav; somehow Graf realized he was German before the rest of us.
"I've met enough people to get the idea of what can happen," she says quietly.
She reclaimed Seles's No.1 ranking - Graf always said the ranking meant little but she has held onto it like an ideal. Perhaps it was inherited, but she has adopted it.
The difference means everything, for she is the first champion in generations to succeed without a rival. Chris Evert took over from Billie Jean King and her group, and then along came Martina, forever and ever; they both were overtaken by Steffi (though Martina remains near her shoulder), and then Monica.
Then Seles was removed, and only the man with the knife and the most cynical observers can believe he did Graf a favor.
Seles's absence has put more pressure upon Graf than any series of grunting, two-handed rallies. Graf was chasing Seles, drafting from behind, catching up, when suddenly, under the worst circumstances, the leader fell out. And the surroundings changed artificially. She no longer heard the crowd cheering for her against Seles. Her strengths - the underdog's strengths - are as the ruin of the women's game. Even Graf says so. When asked about the problems in women's tennis, she says: "I think it starts with my domination at the moment. The main thing, after that, are just little things." A strong administrative leader, better public relations.
These days, you cannot be paying to watch an opponent compete against her. Instead, you watch to see how she handles herself. You watch for the first sign that she is taking it easy, as most others would. Along those lines, she discloses very little.
"My performance is most important for me," she says. "The other day I won, 6-2, 6-2, and I wasn't very happy. I felt I made a lot of unforced errors. That's why I don't show much emotion. I know I would get myself out of rhythm. I know because I do it in practice a lot."
The obvious point has to be made: If her dominance is a dull incrimination of women's tennis, then it is not her fault. A graver symptom of the game's problems is the perception of players - men and women - as spoiled and greedy, taking advantage without giving their best efforts. If you want to support that argument, then there isn't much room to turn around and criticize the best player for trying her best, regardless of the opponent.
She thinks she has become more emotional in recent years. (Can't be.) This surfaced last year, after her surprisingly difficult 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 final victory over Mary Joe Fernandez - when Graf was so caught up that she neglected, regrettably, to announce her best wishes to Seles. But then Wimbledon was 15 days away, and Graf was wondering whether this victory - her first after three straight French Opens had been taken by Seles - might keep her from winning her favorite tournament. She had won in spite of a stress fracture in her right foot.
"It wasn't easy to make the decision to play at Wimbledon," she says. "From day to day I was saying, 'If it's going to hurt like this the next day, I'm not going to play.' I stopped practicing in the middle of it. Then I put my head down and thought about it, and it was the right decision." Thanks, in great part, to the third-set collapse of Jana Novotna.
After surgery last October to remove bone fragments from her foot, Graf began a regimen of workouts that has made her better than ever, she believes.
"I have to do it because I've had a lot of injuries, and the only way to get rid of them is to work more on the physical part," she says. "Before, I have been kind of lazy off of the court. I had never really done a lot of weights or running outside of tennis. I keep working because there is still so much left to accomplish."
If she is working harder than she did last year, when Seles was above her, then what does that say? So solitary and stubborn is Graf that in the days after the stabbing, she pleaded that the players not be closeted from the fans. Even now she refuses to be guarded.
"I think, being in Germany, I know some things that maybe a few people don't know," she adds. "There are a lot of crazy people around, and I've met a lot of crazy people. I've lived with the risk that something can happen to me. I just know something can happen, and I can't do anything about it. Even if you have five people around you, there will always be moments where you will be vulnerable. I have learned to live with that."
And so, ultimately, she seems sad. She has always looked that way. There has always been joy in the variety of shots, the aggressive play, but it rarely appears from the person. And now the world watches only her, recalling, just as she must, that she really doesn't have anyone to play against.
The pain rises in her voice as she talks about Hamburg. The knife cut her rival in a less obvious way. You say it's a scar, that it must have healed, and she says, "It heals, but you always can see it."