Lioness in Winter
Steffi Graf may be near the end of her career, but she's hardly
Steffi Graf, who will turn 30 before her next Wimbledon, is
beginning to sound like Martina Navratilova near the end of her
glorious career. "Come on!" Graf cried twice last Saturday to
make the ball fall her way during the Chase Championships
semifinals, and both times the ball obeyed. Such power over
inanimate objects is just one manifestation of how spectacular
Graf remains as she ages. After playing only 30 matches from
January to October while recovering from a series of injuries,
she won consecutive tournaments to qualify for last week's
season-ending tournament in Madison Square Garden, a showdown for
the world's top 16 women.
Graf's end run ended when her right hamstring gave out in the
third set of the semis, just as she was preparing to shut down
top-ranked Lindsay Davenport for the second time in a week. Graf
then played out her 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 loss like a hobbled senior
citizen, but that's not what her rivals will remember when she
and they reconvene in January for the Australian Open. In her
last five matches before the Chase semifinal (three at the
Advanta Championships in Philadelphia, two in the Garden), she
"upset" No. 2 Martina Hingis, No. 8 Nathalie Tauziat, Davenport,
No. 3 Jana Novotna and No. 6 Monica Seles. Graf, who had been
ranked 91st in mid-June, finished the year No. 9. "For someone to
come back from all those injuries is remarkable," said Davenport,
who lost to Hingis in four sets in Sunday's Chase final. "I am
sure she will be in Australia, incredibly tough."
Graf wasn't so sure. "In the past two years I've learned not to
look very far ahead," she said after a Friday-morning practice at
the Garden. Just last May, Graf was fast losing hope in her
lingering bout with a strain in her left hamstring. The injury,
she believes, was a consequence of the painful eight-month
rehabilitation she underwent after her left knee was surgically
repaired in June 1997. "In May, I gave myself one more week, and
if [the hamstring] didn't start to improve, I would retire," Graf
said. "I started playing five minutes a day, 10 minutes a day. I
progressed every day."
She remained vulnerable throughout the summer, at one point
inflaming a tendon in her right ankle, and after the U.S. Open in
September she had minor surgery on her right hand. But when she
played, it was with the understanding that she had been on the
verge of quitting the game for her own good. That was a
fundamental change in attitude for someone who had turned pro at
13 and played at the highest level while coping with persistent
physical ailments as well as the controversies surrounding her
father, Peter, who, among other scandals, served 2 1/2 years in
jail for tax evasion.
In short, her relationship with the sport had matured. "You
cannot have the success I've had lately without loving tennis,"
says Graf, who during the last two years hasn't added to her haul
of 21 Grand Slam singles titles. "It's not a case of enjoying it
more. I guess because I didn't expect so much from myself this
year...it's just different now."
Last week in New York City, Graf was cheered more loudly than
both Seles, whose own personal travails have made her a crowd
favorite, and Davenport, the first U.S.-born No. 1 since Chris
Evert in 1985. After years of trying to block out crowd noise,
Graf allowed the cheering to flow through her like an electric
charge. On Thursday night, after she beat Seles in a three-set
match that brought to mind the late-career meetings of
Navratilova and Evert, Graf leaned back in her courtside chair
and laughed while the crowd shared her joy.
Graf was a teenager when she won her first six Grand Slam titles.
At that time Evert was playing out her fabulous career. Why does
she put up with it? Graf would ask herself as she mercilessly
blistered forehands past Evert. "I understand it now," Graf said
last Friday. "If you love the game so much, it is very difficult
to part from it."
Find Out What It Means to Pete
While Graf claims that records mean nothing to her, they mean
everything to Pete Sampras. He entered the ATP Tour World
Championships this week in Hannover, Germany, with the goal of
clinching the year-end No. 1 ranking on the ATP computer for the
sixth time in a row and breaking the record he shares with Jimmy
Connors (1974 to '78). Sampras is also one title short of tying a
second record, Roy Emerson's 12 Grand Slam singles crowns.
Sampras spent a laborious six weeks playing indoor tournaments in
Europe to grab the pole position in Hannover. At 27 he has earned
more than $34 million in prize money alone, so his current
efforts have little to do with lucre. Sampras wants to be known
as the greatest player ever: the Michael Jordan of tennis.
For six years he has defended his ranking while avoiding major
injuries and keeping an international schedule that constantly
invites jet lag. "I guess it would be like the Chicago Bulls
winning the NBA title six years in a row, but I'm not sure even
that compares," Sampras's coach, Paul Annacone, says. "It's so
hard for a player, playing by himself, to keep the same goal for
The indoor surface at Hannover seemed to favor Sampras in his
goal of remaining ahead of No. 2 Marcelo Rios (chart, left), who
has yet to win a Grand Slam event. "It's the eight best guys of
the year, and Pete really gets up for that," Annacone says. In
1996 Sampras had already clinched the top ranking for the year
when he deflated the host country by beating Boris Becker in a
five-set marathon in the final. Last year Patrick Rafter needed
only to win a set against Sampras in Hannover's round-robin
format to qualify for the second round. Sampras took great
delight, just as Jordan would have, in clobbering him 6-4, 6-1.
Like Jordan, Sampras is always looking for new sources of
motivation. Earlier this month at the Paris Open he noted that
zero U.S. reporters were there to chronicle his quest for the
record. He was reportedly miffed that his feat was being ignored
during the year that so much has been made of Mark McGwire and
Sammy Sosa. Altogether a bad sign for Rios.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Focused and finally fit, Graf hammered out wins over five Top 10 players in a two-week span. [Steffi Graf playing tennis]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [Marcelo Rios playing tennis]
Marcelo, Prince of Denmark
This week No. 2-ranked Marcelo Rios of Chile will have his 10th
opportunity of 1998 to take over the top spot on the ATP
computer. With one notable exception--his first chance--he has
shown an ambivalence worthy of Hamlet toward seizing the crown of
men's tennis. Here's his record while in reach of Numero Uno.
EVENT RESULTS ROUND RANK
Lipton, March 30 d. Andre Agassi Final No. 1
French Open, June 2 l. to Carlos Moya QF No. 2
Wimbledon, June 24 l. to Francisco Clavet 1st No. 2
du Maurier Open, Aug. 3 DNP No. 1
RCA Championships, Aug. 20 l. to Byron Black 3rd No. 2
U.S. Open, Sept. 6 l. to Magnus Larsson 3rd No. 3
Eurocard Open, Oct. 30 l. to Yevgeny Kafelnikov QF No. 2
Paris Open, Nov. 6 l. to Kafelnikov QF No. 2
Chevrolet Cup, Nov. 13 l. to Juan Antonio Marin QF No. 2
BY THE NUMBERS
3 Top 10 players Pete Sampras had defeated, through Sunday, in
0 Times Sampras and No. 2 Marcelo Rios had played each other,
through Sunday, since 1994.
5 Times Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, the No. 1- and No.
2-ranked women, have played each other this year.
26 Web sites devoted to 17-year-old Anna Kournikova, who has
yet to win a WTA title.
0 Web sites devoted to Lindsay Davenport.
433,310 Dollars in prize money earned in 1998 by Marc Rosset,
who, despite having won no titles, recently remarked, "Women's
tennis is weak because the players make huge money with little
1 Doubles ranking of Jacco Eltingh, 28, who retired after
winning the world doubles championship on Sunday to spend more
time with his newborn child.
5 Tennis players immortalized at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in
London now that Hingis has joined Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, John
McEnroe and Martina Navratilova there.