Seles' return puts Graf in background

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- While Monica Seles took center stage on the Stadium Court last night, Steffi Graf rushed through an early morning practice and fled the National Tennis Center before a single spectator arrived. Not since Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd has there been such a manifestation of Trading Places.

Here at this year's U.S. Open, Seles has become the logical favorite, the emotional choice, the one to watch. Graf has lapsed deep in crisis, shrouded in mystery, the one to chase.

Her back reportedly hurts. Her father's in jail. Her own tax returns have been probed. And Seles, stabbed in the back by a deranged German fan in the name of Graf, is unmistakably the belle of this ball.

"We all were feeling sorry for Monica and saying, 'Aren't you lucky, Steffi?' " Dennis van der Meer was saying yesterday in the players' lounge. "All of a sudden, Monica can do no wrong, and Steffi's the hard-luck girl."

In the business of women's tennis, van der Meer goes all the way back to Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, whom he coached when they stood up for their gender and sport against that blow hard Bobby Riggs. Now that Seles has supposedly returned to resurrect a slumping, sponsorless women's tour, it's fair to wonder if she will have a partner with whom to do the job.

When the glow of her comeback ebbs, Seles will need Graf, the way Graf needed Seles these past 2 1/2 years. No one star, not even Seles, carries this sport. Thus the whispers circulating in JTC the players' lounge that Graf might even withdraw from the U.S. Open was good news for no one except van der Meer's player, Amanda Coetzer, who drew Graf in a first-round match today.

"No one's seen her, so there's a lot of talk," van der Meer said. "But even still, if there's a time to play the No. 1 player, it's when her physical and mental condition is suspect."

There were signs of that in Toronto, he said, when Coetzer handed Graf her first 1995 defeat. By then, Peter Graf was under arrest in Germany on charges of tax evasion, while the world's welcome mat had been laid out for Seles.

Graf, van der Meer said, played as if she'd flipped on her body's automatic pilot switch, while her head took full retreat.

"She was being very stubborn," van der Meer said. "She was saying, 'I'm going to hit the ball as hard as I can, whether the ball's going in or out, and I'm not going to change.' "

There was something else, too. In the post-match news conference, Graf credited Coetzer for playing well, and that was a first.

"In the other times, it was always, 'Well, I didn't play well or do this,' " van der Meer said. "With Steffi, it's always been as if the opponent was a domino on the other side.

"I was always disappointed that she never gave this gutty little girl any credit. But then, the great players have always been self-absorbed, so when they start to give credit to the opponent, perhaps you start wondering about them."

Now that Seles, the ultimate victim, has returned, Graf can forget about drawing public sentiment, no matter what she's dealing with, on court and off.

And if she's getting close to the end, for whatever reason, then she'll likely finish like Ivan Lendl, admired for not much more than cold, punctual achievement.

That's too bad because Graf happens to stand for much, much more. The more we learn about her father suggests we understand that Steffi Graf could have easily been Jennifer Capriati, another casualty of the Monster Tennis Dad.

"I've been around her since her first match and of all the things she's had to deal with, it's never been this bad," said Robert Luebenoff, a German free-lance journalist.

The Grafs, he said, have monopolized German front pages for weeks. And while few, if any, believe Steffi to be guilty of tax ignorance, he wonders how she managed to win the French Open, then Wimbledon, knowing the tax probe was under way, while suffering from the spasms in her back. Seles or no Seles, Graf's will to win should be the stuff of legend.

"Amanda, of course, is very confident after Toronto, and if you add up all the problems, she could win again," van der Meer said. "Or, Steffi could be so annoyed by all this that she'll just blow her off the court."

That would be a good sign for the U.S. Open, for women's tennis.

Seles appears to have overcome her trauma. She is a winner, regardless of what happens in New York.

Graf needs this tournament more, and tennis needs Graf. We could do worse than root for her.

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