WIMBLEDON, England -- Now, Steffi Graf is an underdog. Now that she's 29 and returning from injury, she'll own the crowds just as she once owned the tournament.
Her every move will be watched. Her every victory will be savored, because no one is quite sure if this is her comeback or her last stand.
Today, Graf is back where she belongs, on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
She will meet Spain's Gala Leon Garcia in a first-round match on what could be a day for star turns.
Reigning men's champion Pete Sampras, 1992 winner Andre Agassi and Monica Seles are among those due to play today, if England's notorious summer weather produces clear skies instead of rainstorms.
But it's Graf who could steal the show.
In past years, her first-round matches were mere formalities, chances for her to get a workout, to begin the long chase to the final.
But now Graf's career is filled with uncertainty.
The one-time teen-age prodigy has 21 Grand Slam titles, including seven Wimbledons. But with the trophies and paychecks, she picked up injuries that struck her back, her hamstring, even her toes.
And then, in June 1997, she underwent surgery on her left knee to repair a fracture of her cartilage and a shortening and partial rupture of the patellar tendon.
Many around tennis thought Graf's career was finished. But she apparently had other ideas. Graf endured months of physical therapy and then survived a few false starts to get herself back on the tour.
She played sporadically over the winter, losing a match to Sabine Appelmans in February. And in March against Lindsay Davenport, Graf was forced to retire from the match after pulling a left hamstring muscle and leaving the court in tears.
Instead of quitting, she came back. Graf appeared in two grass-court tuneups in England. She didn't win any titles, but she played very well. And she displayed her old fire, even growing furious when line calls went against her in a close loss to Russia's Anna Kournikova.
Last week, Graf told reporters: "I'm physically and mentally fit, and I'm looking forward to another Wimbledon."
She also coolly analyzed the state of the women's game, now dominated by teen-agers like reigning Wimbledon champion Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Kournikova.
"There are a lot of good players among the women nowadays, and the standard is rising," Graf said. "So I know it will be tough."
Despite her ailments, Graf retains her fierce resolve to play and win. Yesterday, she put in a hard, hour-long practice against Jennifer Capriati. There was a time when Capriati was the newest rage in tennis. But Graf saw her off, as she has so many other teens.
As she left the workout, Graf worked her way past cameras, signed a few autographs and appeared relaxed.
No one is certain how Graf will play here, including her coach, Heinz Gunthardt.
Gunthardt said that, technically, Graf remains the same type of player she was before her layoff. She still has her signature forehand and slice backhand. And her serve remains as accurate as ever.
"What she needs are matches," Gunthardt said. "You can't simulate the matches. She needs to get in a groove."
The experts say that the key to Graf's chances here lies in her left knee. If she can withstand the rigors of bending and sprinting, she has a chance to win. The tournament organizers ignored her world ranking of No. 91 and concentrated on her Wimbledon history, giving her the No. 4 seed. And the bookmakers have Graf and Seles as second favorites behind Hingis.
"The big question is: Can her knee hold up under intense match play?" said Billie Jean King, a Wimbledon legend. "She keeps breaking down physically. She's a real perfectionist. I know she is very impatient with herself and tough on herself. She works very hard. As you get older, you have to work smarter."
Can Graf win Wimbledon?
"If her body holds up," said another Wimbledon legend, Martina Navratilova. "Can her body hold up and let her perform? There is no ambiguity with how you play on grass. You have to go down low."
But Graf didn't come here to embarrass herself. Tennis commentator Mary Carillo said the most important thing to know about Graf is this: She's here.
"I don't care how long she has been off the tour," Carillo said. "If Steffi Graf is entering Wimbledon, that tells me she can come in and win it."
Pete Sampras (1), U.S., vs. Dominik Hrbaty, Slovakia.
Petr Korda (3), Czech Republic, vs. Javier Sanchez, Spain.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov (7), Russia vs. Mark Philippoussis, Australia.
Andre Agassi (13), U.S., vs. Alex Calatrava, Spain.
Lindsay Davenport (2), U.S., vs. Florencia Labat, Argentina
Steffi Graf (4), Germany, vs. Gala Leon Garcia, Spain.
Monica Seles (6), U.S., vs. Maria Antonia Sanchez Lorenzo, Spain.
Pub Date: 6/22/98