Victory mountain that Graf scaled was much bigger than Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — WIMBLEDON, England -- I hope the world finally gives Steff Graf a hand. Who in tennis deserves one more?

That was a darned sight more than a long road that turned for her Saturday.


It was a glass mountain.

She has been bloodying her fingernails slipping and sliding up and down that mountain the last year and a half.


Her smile matched the sun when she stood at the top again.

She had outnerved Gabriela Sabatini 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 for her third Wimbledon championship.

She deserved that smile. For the world actually seemed to be greasing the glass mountain.

Back when the German was winning 52 straight matches before she fell on skis when paparazzi were chasing her at St. Moritz, someone asked her if she sometimes felt like a machine.

"I am a machine," Graf said.

No she wasn't.

She is 22 now. Then, she was a woman just approaching adulthood with all the vulnerabilities of that age.

She suffered the cruelest jibes every time she met Sabatini -- and lost to her the last five times. People said it was "The Pearl of the Pampas" meeting "The Sour Kraut."


Obviously, the jibes exceeded cruelty. They reached obscenity. And her father's paternity suit tore the very soul her opponents had begun to doubt that she had.

From 1987 through 1990, Graf found tennis' Holy Grail in nine Grand Slam titles.

What she could not find the last year and a half was herself.

"Please call me Stephanie," she begged. "I am grown up now." Of course no one calls her Stephanie. She is Steffi the Machine, remember?

She bought herself a ring and put it on the finger most people save for wedding rings. "To symbolize my new independence," she said.

Facade. All facade.


She was grappling with so much. Her nomadic life gave her no time for normal relationships. Yet it allowed no escape from the hounding of her father's scandal.

And so, when she fired off that beautiful forehand pass to go ahead 7-6 in the blistering suspense beginning a third hour of Gatling Gun tennis, she hurled herself off the long-browned grass and actually smiled for the first time all day.

She knew then she would make it.

It would take another game. But then and there, her confidence almost visibly shimmering, she was already mentally smacking the huge forehand return of Sabatini's service to end the match.

Sabatini is a beautiful player. Her net charges made sky-blue artistry on a day as beautiful as any in her native Argentina or adopted island of Key Biscayne.

But when this became about will rather than about tennis, Graf won.


Sabatini has made a living off Graf for more than the past half-year. Her six victories in the last eight matches included the U.S. Open.

So the mountain kept reappearing Saturday before Graf. And every time she seemed to pull up an inch, memories of Sabatini's hex on her came flooding back, and back she slid.

Sabatini spent most of the first set sleepwalking. Then Graf fell into a second set in which she held serve only once.

It looked as though Sabatini had broken Graf's will as well when she broke for a 5-4 lead in the third set.

The din at that point was deafening.

"Gab-ee! Gab-ee!"


Did you trouble to watch the TV? And if you did, did you hear a single "Steff-ee! Steff-ee!"? I didn't.

Graf repaid the Centre Court hostility by breaking for 5-5. And when she hit that lovely forehand pass to regain her lead at 7-6, she danced a quick little step.

Then threw up the left hand in delirium.

I don't know Graf well enough to guarantee any symbolism in the fact that that hand was the one for which she bought her own ring.

You needn't know her well at all to realize the height of the mountain she had climbed.