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Graf Uses Her Tennis Umbrella

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 9, 1996; Page C1

NEW YORK ó Exactly two minutes after Steffi Grafís forehand volley closed out the second set and won her a fifth U.S. Open Championship, the already malignant skies above Louis Armstrong Stadium opened mercilessly. The 19,883 spectators scampered frantically toward the exits to find shelter from driving rain that swirled and landed with such force it felt like walking through a car wash. Pompously, tournament officials and corporate sponsors set up their trophy presentation on the court, ignoring the thunderclaps and the lightning nearby. Some boob of a bank president started to go on and on with his silly speech, and nearby Graf stood patiently.

She had every right to be annoyed, given the conditions. But Graf was in her own world, a place where it wasnít pouring or even cloudy. The driving rain crashed against her face until her blond hair was slicked back, matted to her head. Here she was, having just beaten her most worthy adversary in the final Grand Slam tournament of the year, and she had to stand there and take a shower just to pick up a check and get out of town. But you know what? It didnít matter. "I donít think I felt the rain at all," is what she said.

Itís impossible to miss the symbolism here, the victory then the rain washing away, momentarily, all the heartache and despair that she has had to carry around the past year, all of it intensifying the past few days. If only the storm could wash her troubles away for good so that she could just enjoy her life.

You know the troubles. Her father, Peter, has been locked away in a German jail for the past year, accused by the government of failing to pay more than $10 million in taxes from Steffiís considerable earnings. It was troubling to play the U.S. Open last year with her father being arrested days before the tournament began. It was even tougher this year, with his trial having started four days ago in Mannheim. "It was really difficult to play this tournament," she said. "Really, really difficult ... I really was struggling during the tournament just to stay focused and to concentrate ..." Then there are the persistent injuries, a sore knee, a sore calf, a bad back and a bone spur in her foot. She hardly practices sometimes, and never trains the way she used to.

When somebody asked if she could recall the last time she entered a Grand Slam tournament healthy and totally peaceful with life and herself, Graf smiled, waved her hand and said, "Forget that question."

Then, Graf posed with the singles championship trophy and did something weíve rarely seen her do the past couple of years.

She smiled.

Gushed actually. Totally unrestrained, teeth showing, cheeks red, whole face glowing. She smiled the way youíre supposed to smile when youíre 27 years old and at the top of your profession, when every championship puts you further and further out there. Past Chris, past Martina, all the way out there with Margaret Court. The fact that sheís won 21 Grand Slam singles titles and is within three of Courtís record doesnít really matter. Itís meeting the challenge, itís occasionally playing perfect points against an equal. "To be able to play that kind of tennis, and get these feelings after the match, only tennis can produce that," she said

Itís odd that the two best players in womenís tennis should be so haunted off the court. Seles seems psychologically to be fine, if not back to what she was before she was stabbed three years ago. But after winning the Australian Open in January, she suffered a tear in her rotator cuff. In a somewhat startling admission, she said after Sundayís match that she realizes the pain-killers she takes might mask the pain just enough for her to do more damage without immediately knowing it. "But that was the decision I made really before the French Open, that I didnít want to miss these Grand Slams this year. Itís hard to say if it was the best decision or not. And I sometimes, when I have time to look back, I am thinking, ĎGosh, why am I doing this ... ?í "

Seles is still only about 80 percent of what she was from 1991 to 1993, when she entered eight Grand Slams, won seven, and lost in the final of the other. Even at 80 percent, which means playing without an authoritative serve, thereís only one player on the tour she canít beat: Graf. Still, they share the No. 1 ranking, and though Graf doesnít mind, Seles knows the truth. "Steffi clearly is No. 1," she said. "She has won three Grand Slams" ó all but the Australian, which she didnít enter.

But respectfully, Graf refers to Seles as her equal, regardless of what has happened this year. That, partially, accounted for her case of the jitters before the match and early in the first set. "I felt so nervous before the match and I felt like I had an upset stomach ..." Probably, it felt strange for Graf to take the court without her back hurting. "My back, for the first time in two years, two weeks ó no problems," she said. Another smile.

"I didnít expect to be able to show that kind of tennis today, and that is why I am so excited about it," she said. "What has been so special about it is that I have played that kind of tennis today and, obviously, it is even a better feeling if you play the other No. 1 player and to show it against her, no question, it is even more special."

And it is still more special yet to win a sixth Grand Slam title in six tries, this recent one providing at least a day trip from the emotions that will swirl inside her until her father is set free.

If only the rest of the day could be like those two hours on the Stadium Court, even the final moments with the rain splashing against her face. Seles was out there, too, snatching the big paycheck and slipping it inside her pocket to make sure the ink didnít run. Seles giggled, as youíd expect her to. She talked of playing Graf more. Graf talked of playing Seles more.

Perhaps before they are old and washed up, meaning 30 in tennis years, the two of them will take the court for a Grand Slam final with no troubles dogging them, with no scars to heal. Maybe, if they are lucky and we are too, Graf and Seles will walk out healthy and focused at the same time and show us championship form, totally unencumbered.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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