TENNIS; Finally, Graf Gets To Start Her Year
February 16, 1992
New York Times
CHICAGO, Feb. 15— Another new year, another new catastrophe for Steffi Graf.
"At least, the year is finally starting for me," she said Friday, lounging in her hotel suite here after an evening of watching John Malkovich emote onstage. Tonight, she was to play Jana Novotna in a semifinal of the Virginia Slims of Chicago, her first tennis tournament of 1992.
"I had such a bad start last year that I had no problems in motivating myself for this one," said the 22-year-old German, who began 1991 with a disappointing quarterfinal loss at the Australian Open to Novotna, then eventually lost the No. 1 world ranking to Monica Seles last March.
Graf went so far in her pursuit of a fresh start that she dismissed her longtime mentor, Pavel Slozil, to start from scratch with a new coach, Heinz Gundhardt.
First, the Flu
"I was training hard, I was even lifting weights," she said. "I really meant for this year to start different."
Graf, mistress of malady, began 1992 in typical fashion. Four days after a complete physical checkup that informed her she had finally achieved maximum resistance to the allergies and viral infections that seem to follow her around the globe like an unwanted personal aura, she came down with a maximum version of the flu on a flight from Germany to Australia, where her new year was scheduled to begin.
By the time her flight landed in Perth, her ears were blocked and her equilibrium had vanished. After she played several Hopman Cup matches, the doctors ordered her to rest, and the rumor mill traced her illness to several dramatic sources.
"They said I was sick because I was depressed and not happy with myself and tennis and felt so locked into my life," said Graf, who holds 10 Grand Slam singles titles. "No kidding, I'm not a person who jumps out of bed in the morning and says how great everything is, but the truth was, I got the flu from my brother. Simple."
And as soon as she recovered from that, she came down with a harsh case of the German measles. She still can't figure out where she caught that.
"I was feeling better, and then one night I felt a bump on the back of my head and I started getting red marks on my chest," she recalled. "But then there were eight bumps, so I knew I couldn't have banged my head that many times and not known it."
Australian physicians, unsure of just what ailed her, sent Graf home to Germany, where her mother, meeting for her at the airport, almost didn't recognize her.
"My hands and joints were swollen and everything hurt so much that I was walking like a very old lady," Graf said. "My mother took one look at me and said, 'What have you done to yourself now?' "
Once the measles subsided, Graf got back to the business of starting her year with a new coach, new methods, and something of a new attitude. Sequestered in Florida with Gundhardt, she submitted to a practice regimen that at first was nearly as painful as her measles had been.
Moving Around the Court
"He has a different way of doing things from Pavel and me; he had me hitting from the corners for 15 minutes, and then hitting from the net for a half-hour straight," said Graf, who is continually bombarded by suggestions that she volley more often.
The latest such adviser was a fan who spoke with her as she signed autographs during a Kraft Tour promotion here on Thursday.
"Come to the net more," urged the fan, and received a classic Graf shrug in reply. "Come to Chicago more," he added. "That's better," she said.
But Graf hasn't been able to dodge Gunthardt so easily.
"He doesn't listen too much to what I say," she said. "If I say I can't do it, he tells me I can. I'm the kind of person who needs to be pushed, and sometimes Pavel was too close to me to push hard enough, I think. Heinz doesn't just push once, he keeps at me."
The changes he has imparted to Graf's game are, so far, "small differences, but they are there," she said.
"I'm using my hips more to bring power to the serve, and I'm hitting my forehand a little earlier," she added.
As for her volley: "I know what the right thing to do is, but I don't always make myself do it."
In Chicago, Graf has kept to herself, as usual, accompanied to Bulls games and the theater by her mother. The stiff shoulder that prohibited most volleys and overheads and forced a myriad of "tablets and injections just to make it through Wimbledon" last spring is gone, as is wrist strain that made it "hard to even hold the racquet" last fall as she claimed three straight tournament victories after her loss to Martina Navratilova in the United States Open semifinals.
"At last, all is fine -- so far," Graf said. Navratilova Rallies
The city that named a day in her honor only Wednesday seemed on the verge of retracting the welcome mat Saturday.
Martina Navratilova's quest for a record 158th singles title as well as a record 12th title at the Virginia Slims of Chicago almost came to a premature halt in the semifinals this afternoon against Lori McNeil. But after being "just killed" in the opening set, Navratilova regained her composure, broke McNeil in the first game of the second set, and emerged with a 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory.
"It was like she had a radar and knew what I was going to do even before I did," Navratilova said of McNeil's first-set assault. "But when I broke her to start the second, that broke the spell and I was back in the match."
Navratilova, 35 years old, shares the record for most career victories, 157, with her retired contemporary, Chris Evert.