Graf still seeks perfection-- and reasons for her fall

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Wimbledon, England -- Steffi Graf walks onto a court all business, an intense, self-absorbed player who leaves passion and artistry at the front gate.

This is assembly-line tennis, a sullen, repetitive exercise played against a clock. A serve here. A forehand there. Keep the product moving. Keep the career going. Points are played with precision and a pout. Victories are accumulated and quickly forgotten.

Graf has reached the first flash point of her career. She faces years on the assembly line before her retirement, yet she is 22 and all grown up. What else is there after you've done New York, Paris, London and Melbourne?

Graf is No. 2 in the world, and remains all but unbeatable. But she is no longer the perfect Grand Slam slugger, no longer the sure thing prepared to dominate women's tennis for the century's last decade.

Whatever happened to Steffi Graf?

It is the question that hangs over women's tennis as Wimbledon creeps into a climactic week at the soggy All England Club. Graf isn't sliding into oblivion; she is only slouching toward mortality, providing hope for rivals and a dramatic edge for the game.

She won the Grand Slam in 1988, the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 1989 and the Australian in 1990. Now, she is in a slump, her signature power game appearing stale, her invincible aura shattered.

"When Steffi was winning, 6-0, 6-0, people were scared of her," Peanut Louie Harper said. "Then, when they started to get three games, they weren't afraid. She is still a super woman, but not an extra-super woman."

Her tumble from the top was well-documented. She suffered physical problems in 1990, ranging from a broken right thumb, sustained when a cat-and-mouse chase with photographers on a ski slope ended in a crash, to viruses, to a sinus operation.

The affair that entwined her father and business manager, Peter, with a German model titillated the tabloids and humiliated the tennis star. In May 1990, her 66-match winning streak ended with her first loss to Monica Seles, in the final of the Berlin Open. Then, she lost to Seles again in the French Open final, was beaten by Zina Garrison in the Wimbledon semifinals and was knocked off by Gabriela Sabatini in the U.S. Open final.

Still, she managed to win 10 tournaments in 1990 and emerge as the Kraft General Foods World Tour Player of the Year. But the No. 1 ranking, held for a record 186 weeks, vanished March 11. A new tennis teen queen was crowned, the 17-year-old, two-fisted baseliner named Seles.

"A changing of the guard always gets attention," nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova said. "Any time a streak is broken, it creates tension."

Tension crackles on the women's tour this year. Graf is beatable in the Grand Slams. She was taken in three splendid sets by Jana Novotna in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The loss was understandable, a well-played match decided by a point. But, in the French Open, Graf collapsed. She committed 44 unforced errors on 59 points while winning only two games off Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semifinals.

"Always, there are high expectations with Steffi," said Graf's coach, Pavel Slozil. "Sometimes, I blame Steffi for that. She was never happy with her performances before. She is a perfectionist."

Graf entered Wimbledon having lost six of her past 38 matches, only one less than her run of 240-7 from 1987 to 1989. Her confidence was clearly shaken.

"I'm just really determined now," Graf said after a routine, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Sabine Appelmans in the Wimbledon first round. "I think I really want to win this tournament."

Others have faced this crisis before. Jimmy Connors recovered from a mid-career slump, and Navratilova and Billie Jean King won after opponents discovered their weaknesses.

"She is going through what Jimmy Connors says is the measure of greatness," NBC-TV commentator Bud Collins said. "You fall down, and you have to come back. Jimmy says after that, people consider you a great player."

"I thought someone would get to Steffi, because she's just human," Collins said. "I didn't expect a total collapse. I knew her father was a difficult man, but not a troubled man. I don't know how deeply wounded she is. She looks like she is trying not to look wounded, but the hurt still comes through."

For the first time in more than a year, Graf appears to have narrowed her focus on to the court. Her relationship with her father has taken on a new, adult twist. There are no secrets anymore, she says, between father and daughter.

Yet the father continues to shadow the daughter's career. "His timing is usually bad," Slozil said.

Before the French Open semifinals, Peter Graf punched Jim Levee, a millionaire American tennis groupie who once showered Steffi with expensive gifts. In the midst of Wimbledon, Peter Graf delivered a public apology to his daughter courtesy of the German magazine Stern. He confessed for the first time that he had a brief affair with a topless model, Nicole Meissner.

"Perhaps I should have spoken earlier and explained the whole affair," he said.

He admitted the fallout from the affair cost his daughter the top spot in the women's game, but said she will recover.

"Her defeat in Paris was not a setback," he said. "She has overcome that. I believe that this year you will see the old Steffi again."

But the old Steffi no longer terrorizes her opponents. They have learned to adapt to her game, which is built around a topspin forehand and slice backhand.

"I don't think Steffi is less powerful; I think we are more powerful," Katerina Maleeva said.

The player who threatens Graf's kingdom the most is not Seles, but Sabatini. With a new-found resolve and elegant serve-and-volley style, Sabatini has beaten Graf in their past five meetings dating back to their watershed match in the 1990 U.S. Open final. It was the clearest sign yet that not only had Graf come back toward the pack, but the pack had also elevated itself nearer the champion.

"I improved because I had to improve," Sabatini said.

It was Carlos Kirmayr who refashioned Sabatini's style to make her competitive with Graf.

"You lose and lose, you have to figure something out," Kirmayr said. "Other players are getting a little better, some good enough to somehow beat her. But from Steffi's point of view, it is not that bad. People are crucifying her because she lost to Gabriela. But, listen, you have to do everything to beat Steffi. You have to break her down, come to net, play a whole game. It is not easy."

Pam Shriver said Graf is the player who now must adapt.

"I've never seen anyone so inflexible," Shriver said. "People will eventually catch on to what you're doing. We all got used to the pace. After a year or two, there is no longer that tremendous intimidation factor. We got better at handling Steffi."

Graf, who has the legs and reach to become a prototype serve-and-volley player, clings to her old weapons, though they no longer deliver the same punch.

"I don't know why she doesn't change," Shriver said. "I don't know if it's coaching or her personality is rigid. For anyone to have a year like she had in 1988, you have to have a lockjaw brain. Maybe that prevents her from changing her game."

Slozil said adjustments are planned. Already, he and Graf are at work on developing a net game. But it takes time, plus confidence, for a player to unveil a made-over game in the midst of a tense match.

"If the head is clear, Steffi can play unbelievable shots," Slozil said. "In practice, everything is possible. Steffi always works hard. But the last 14 days, she is playing extremely well. She wants to prove something to herself. She wants to prove that she is capable of winning again."

For all of her problems and defeats, Graf remains near the top of the women's game and is still the player others must defeat to win major titles. The Graf Era is not yet over. She still may have the will and the desire to return to No. 1.

"I think I can get it back," she said. "It's not hard for me to deal with. It's not going to be a big problem."

Steffi Graf in 1991

Australian Open: Lost to Jana Novotna in quarterfinals, 5-7, 6-4, 8-6.

Pan Pacific: Lost to Gabriela Sabatini in quarterfinals, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6.

Virginia Slims of Florida: Lost to Sabatini in final, 6-4, 7-6.

Lipton Championships: Lost to Sabatini in semifinals, 7-6, 6-1.

U.S. Hardcourts: Defeated Monica Seles in final, 6-4, 6-3.

Bausch & Lomb: Lost to Sabatini in final, 7-5, 7-6.

Citizen Cup: Defeated Seles in final, 7-5, 6-7, 6-3.

German Open: Defeated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in final, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6.

French Open: Lost to Sanchez in semifinals, 6-0, 6-2.

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