Lindsay Davenport sounded like someone trapped in a supper club
with a bad Las Vegas comic. "Oh, come on, come on, no, stop it,"
Davenport pleaded last Friday when someone told her that Steffi
Graf, the Australian Open's top seed, was suffering from a bad
back. "She always goes out and plays just fine. I don't want to
know what's bothering her now."
Forgive Davenport her skepticism. For nearly a year and a half
the women's tour had been waiting for Graf either to unravel
emotionally from the legal travails of her father, Peter, or to
crack physically from a succession of injuries. Through it all
Steffi had somehow sustained a string of 45 Grand Slam match
victories, six major titles and a firm grip on the No. 1
ranking, achievements that prompted Davenport's
you're-killing-me comment. But in vaporizing heat at Melbourne
Park on Sunday, something finally got to Graf. She fell 6-2, 7-5
to Amanda Coetzer of South Africa in the fourth round, joining
four other top seeds to exit over the weekend: No. 2 Arantxa
Sanchez Vicario of Spain, who lost 1-6, 6-4, 8-6 to Dominique
Van Roost of Belgium; No. 3 Conchita Martinez, also a Spaniard,
who lost 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 to another Belgian, Sabine Appelmans; and
No. 5 Anke Huber of Germany, who fell 6-2, 6-3 to Mary Pierce of
France. Even Davenport, the No. 7 seed, bowed out 7-6, 6-4 to
fellow American Kimberly Po. Never before had so many
single-digit women's seeds been swept away during the first week
of a Grand Slam tournament.
In the meantime, back in Germany, the prosecution and defense
were delivering final arguments in Peter Graf's tax evasion
trial in Mannheim, where a verdict on charges that he had failed
to pay nearly $13 million in taxes for his daughter is expected
on Friday, the eve of the Australian Open women's final.
Prosecutor Hubert Jobski has accused Graf of spinning "a web of
lies" and asked that he be given a prison term of six years and
nine months in addition to the 15 months he has already served.
Defense lawyer Franz Salditt describes his client as a
"helpless, lost man," addled by alcoholism, ignorant of the
minutiae of the German tax code he admittedly violated and
wronged by his advisers and tax officials. The Graf family says
it has made restitution of all unpaid back taxes and maintains
that Steffi knew nothing of her father's handling of her
finances. But authorities in her homeland have not absolved her
of complicity in the matter.
For months none of this affected Graf's game. It was as if she
had her own retractable roof, like the one on the main structure
at Melbourne's National Tennis Centre. "She has dealt with it
all really well," Coetzer said before their match. "I think
tennis is a bit of an outlet for her. She manages to step on the
court and just put it all aside."
If so, on Sunday, Graf may have been done in by mere physical
factors: that chronically troublesome back; an infected big toe
that she had treated on Saturday; and simple exhaustion from
heat so withering that Martinez called it "a joke." There had
been signs of Graf's vulnerability earlier in the week. She fell
behind 0-4 in her second-round match against Latvia's Larisa
Neiland before rallying to win 7-5, 6-2, and in the third round
she trailed Ines Gorrochategui of Argentina 2-5 before
prevailing 7-5, 6-3. But Coetzer, ranked 12th, is too formidable
an opponent to favor with the charity of an early advantage. As
the 5'2" baseliner took the first set, the sports book operating
in Melbourne Park (which had listed Graf as a 4-to-7 favorite to
win her 22nd Grand Slam singles title) sensed something seismic
was about to happen to the women's draw and suspended all betting.
Graf seemed briefly to find a rhythm in the second set, and she
went up 4-0. But she dropped the next two games, and her epic
seventh-game victory was Pyrrhic. Over 17 minutes and 10 deuces,
Graf squandered six game points--and drove two point-blank
overheads into the net--before holding serve. Then, at 5-4, she
muffed a couple of set points, and Coetzer sensed that the match
was hers for the taking, if not immediately, then in a third set.
There would be no third set. The breezeless proscenium of Centre
Court, where temperatures reached 130 [degrees], scarcely fazed
Coetzer, who grew up on the edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert.
Her coach and trainer, Gavin Hopper, is a Melbournian with
experience whipping into shape those most indefatigable of
athletes, Aussie Rules footballers. He honed Coetzer's
groundstrokes by having her rally with men, and before the Graf
match he counseled her to probe her opponent's vaunted forehand.
Finding it shaky, Coetzer continued to challenge Graf, who wound
up committing 53 unforced errors and who between points sought
refuge in a thin strip of shade behind the baseline. After match
point Graf left her rackets and bag at Centre Court, passed up
the postmatch press conference and returned to her hotel for
rest and rehydration. By the time she was ready to fly on to
Tokyo for the next WTA Tour stop, the touts had put the only
survivor among the top seven seeds, No. 4 Martina Hingis of
Switzerland, at 4 to 7 to win her first Grand Slam singles title.
As Steffi waits to be cleared by the tax authorities, she faces
another probe with potential consequences for her career.
Prosecutors introduced evidence at her father's trial that she
received more than $600,000 in payments that might constitute
improper appearance fees. Gunter Sanders, the executive director
of the German Tennis Federation, testified in September that his
organization had paid Peter Graf hundreds of thousands of
dollars a year between 1990 and 1993 in connection with
tournaments the federation staged in Berlin and Hamburg. Whether
that money was to ensure Steffi's participation (which Women's
Tennis Association rules would prohibit) or was simply
compensation for "promotional work" she might have done in
connection with the event (which the rules would permit) has yet
to be settled. Also unclear is whether Steffi was aware of those
payments and if she was not, whether the WTA would still
consider her subject to punishment. (Sanctions could include a
fine of as much as $50,000 and up to a 90-day suspension, plus
the return of any improper fees received.) Last week Steffi
would not comment on the matter, other than to say she was
cooperating with the WTA.
Not long ago, as Graf was posing for a magazine shoot, her
impatience and her aversion to not being in control were plainly
evident. "How much longer will this take?" she wanted to know.
"As long as it takes you to look sexy," the photographer
replied. His riposte momentarily relaxed her, touching off
several minutes of mugging that gave them both what they wanted.
But public vulnerability is not a state Graf much likes,
particularly now, as she continues trying to establish a zone of
privacy and safety between an ever-encroaching outside world and
a domestic one that long ago lost its tranquillity. Now 27, she
was a teenager when her family was last clear of problems
created by her scapegrace father, whether of the tax, drinking
or affair-with-a-nude-model variety.
No wonder, then, that when she was asked last week what she did
with the stuffed animals and other gewgaws that fans give her
for good luck, Graf said she keeps them all. "We've got huge
boxes of them," she said. "I used to stack them up in my
bedroom, but there isn't enough room there anymore."
Does she have a favorite?
"There's a bear dressed like a pilot," she said. "That's
probably one of my favorites."
An aviator bear might signify both escape and hibernation. As
Graf prepared to fly from Melbourne, it seemed a talisman, a
comfort, perhaps even a symbol of a woman both dependent and
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN With her toe throbbing and the courtside temperature hitting 130 [degrees], Graf played like a shadow of herself. [Steffi Graf on court]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Coetzer stuck to the baseline and kept sending the ball to Graf's surprisingly off-target forehand. [Amanda Coetzer in match]