NEW YORK -- She hates to lose. But she needs to lose.
Such is the irony underlying Steffi Graf's tennis life these days.
She lost to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario yesterday in the U.S. Open final. "Very disappointing," she said, her face set in a sad-eyed scowl.
But it was just what she needed.
At 25 years old, winner of 15 Grand Slam titles and 71 other tournaments, ranked No. 1 in the world for six of the past eight years, she needs something to keep her interested or she is going to fall asleep on a changeover one of these days.
She has won all the tournaments there are to win. Banked more money than she can ever spend. Turned the Grand Slam trick.
"I have nothing left to play for," she said last week, "except to keep trying to play better."
That is close to impossible when there are no challengers out there, when she is clearly superior to every other player, when Martina Navratilova is retiring and Monica Seles is maybe gone forever and everyone else is a 6-2, 6-0 in waiting.
Graf needs someone to push her, a challenge, a Frazier to her towering Ali.
Now it looks like she may have one.
The second-ranked Sanchez Vicario took Graf's best shot yesterday, a 22-minute first set wipeout, and came back to win. Graf's sore back flared up for a few minutes in the second set, but her inconsistent forehand and her opponent's sheer doggedness were the story of her defeat.
For Sanchez Vicario, 22, the victory was only the eighth in 32 career matches with Graf. But things are changing between them. They have split six matches this year. Sanchez Vicario has won the past two. In 1994, Graf won one Grand Slam title and Sanchez Vicario won two.
"She is still No. 1 in the computer rankings, but [in terms of] playing I have been doing much better than her," Sanchez Vicario said yesterday.
Still, as much as the Spaniard has improved, Graf's game determines the text of their rivalry. If they are indeed closer now, it is mostly because Graf isn't playing as well as she was. Sanchez Vicario is a mere mortal, just a tough, solid player. Graf is a Dream Teamer with that killer forehand, unmatched speed and steady nerves. Sanchez Vicario can't compete if they're both at their best.
That Graf isn't at her best right now is clear. She was merciless in the first set yesterday, but couldn't keep it up. She made three unforced forehand errors in the first game of the second set and regressed from there, letting Sanchez Vicario back into the match.
Basically, Graf played a lot like someone who had not been in many tough matches lately, which was no coincidence. She has won 57 of 62 matches this year, most in mind-numbing blowouts. Check out the times from her first five matches at this Open: She disposed of Anne Mall in 45 minutes, Sandra Cacic in 55, Radka Bobkova in 52, Zina Garrison-Jackson in 53 and Amanda Coetzer in 55. Her serve had been broken only four times in the tournament before yesterday.
And you think it's tough to sit there on the couch and watch her win day after day. Try being out there on the court.
After she was pushed by Jana Novotna in the semifinals Friday, Graf said it had been "much more fun" to play an interesting match for a change. An easy sentiment to fathom.
But then Sanchez Vicario was too much fun yesterday.
See the dilemma?
Things would have been different if Seles had not been stabbed on that court in Germany 18 months ago. Seles was beating Graf regularly. Seles had passed Graf and become the undisputed No. 1 player. Had Seles not been stabbed, Graf would have had plenty of motivation to work to improve. But she also might have experienced true frustration. She might not have been able to catch Seles.
But that's all conjecture at this point, of course. Seles apparently has discovered that being a normal teen-ager is maybe more fun than playing tennis, and Graf is left to compete with herself. That she needs to lose is obvious. Otherwise she has nothing to shoot for, no reason to believe that she needs to keep getting up in the morning and working hard.
Without any losses, without any challenges, she'd be out of the game in two more years. You can only measure yourself against yourself for so long.
But as much as she needs failure, she abhors it. Her disappointment was palpable after yesterday's loss. Her voice was tinny, her smile nonexistent. It was no surprise. Even if she has accomplished everything there is to accomplish, her competitiveness is the stuff of legend. Why do you think she keeps going out there? She is addicted to winning.
"Who do you think is No. 1 in the world this year?" someone asked her.
"That's up to you," she said quickly and defensively, as if it were obvious that she was still far superior to Sanchez Vicario no matter how often she loses.
Which she is.
3' And which is precisely the problem.