WIMBLEDON, England -- The Wimbledon Championships were put right yesterday by a hacking woman playing wondrous tennis.
No. 1 seed Steffi Graf, the only player, man or woman, to live up to her ranking during this fortnight, overcame a cough, sniffles and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to win a seventh singles title on Wimbledon's Centre Court lawn.
"Knowing the situation I was in two weeks ago, physically, it's just, it just seems amazing to me to really come through like this," Graf said after putting on a formidable display to win, 6-3, 7-5, under a rare brilliant sun. "I don't know how I do it. I just keep on doing it. I really don't know how."
It was her 20th Grand Slam victory, moving her into second place on the all-time list behind Margaret Court, who won 24.
It was also her 100th title.
Even Graf, playing her 14th season, was enthralled.
"So many numbers you can mention," she said. "But it's not the numbers that feel good right now. It's the winning."
And that was obvious to the 15,000 fans who packed Centre Court and gave her a standing ovation.
Graf accepted the victor's gold plate from the Duchess of Kent, held it over her head, looked at it, grinned and then simply hugged it as tightly as she could.
"It wouldn't make sense to put one title above another," she would say later. "But you want to hold on to the moment out there. The moment goes pretty quickly, but I mean, there was a lot of joy inside of me."
She had started this tournament with no practice on grass and an aching knee. She overcame those handicaps, plus a miserable sinus and flu bug that was still bothering her yesterday, to beat three seeded players en route to the final.
Yesterday, she had started the match as if running in front of a thunderstorm. A year ago here, she outlasted Sanchez Vicario in a memorable three-set match that included a 20-minute, 32-point game with the score at 5-5 in the third.
There was nothing like that this time.
Graf, 27, warded off two break points in the first game, with her consistent serve and a wicked, wicked forehand, and was never behind in games.
"Steffi played really well," said Sanchez Vicario, who has been runner-up to Graf in four of six Grand Slams, including this year's French Open. "I think she [hit] very deep today, and for me it was very hard to even go into the net. . . . I think I've never -- in the tournament -- seen her playing her forehand so good like today, so close to the lines."
Sanchez Vicario would steal the Wimbledon champion's gold plate out of Graf's hands for a moment last night during the awards presentation, but that was the only way she could get close to it.
She never really had a chance. Even when Sanchez Vicario rallied from 4-1 in the second set to pull even at 5-5, Graf never seemed in danger. "I thought I was in control of the points," Graf said.
And Sanchez Vicario admitted as much.
"I stayed alive in the match because she double-faulted and missed that one overhead," said Sanchez Vicario. "They were very little chances and I took my chances, but they were too little and probably too late."
She broke Graf in the sixth game for 4-2, after a rare red-faced moment for Graf.
Known for slam-dunking overheads without allowing a bounce, Graf stretched up to meet Sanchez Vicario's defensive lob on break point and totally missed.
Graf turned, recovered and hit the ball back to Sanchez Vicario off the bounce, but it was a gift for her opponent, who put away a winner.
"There is nothing I can blame," Graf said. "Nothing around me. No bug. No nothing. I thought I had it -- maybe I was thinking ahead. I don't know what happened. I don't remember it ever happening before, and it was embarrassing."
It didn't matter. Neither did Sanchez Vicario's second break of her serve to get to 5-5. Graf simply broke back on Sanchez Vicario's next serve and then served it out.
The only odd thing about Graf's performance was her immediate reaction. She did not throw her racket, or drop to her knees or leap in the air. She did not clench her fists or climb up to her friends for a loving hug.
She simply stood there on the baseline in front of the Royal Box and smiled with a look of mingled amazement and relief.
"It just feels pretty awesome right now," Graf said. "Pretty incredible. I really didn't expect it. It's not the best moment I've ever had, but it is the most unexpected.
"You know, I can't believe the last couple of years. I've had these decisions, to play or not to play, and I've always chosen to play and take the risk -- and every time it's worked out. It really is incredible."
Pub Date: 7/07/96
Steffi Graf moved to within two of the most career Wimbledon women's singles championships:
9 -- Martina Navratilova, Czech-U.S., 1978-79, 1982-87, 1990.
8 -- Helen Wills Moody, U.S., 1927-30, 1932-33, 1935, 1938.
7 -- Dorothea Douglass Chambers, Britain, 1903-04, 1906, 1910-11, 1913-14; Steffi Graf, 1988-89, 1991-93, 1995-96.