They called her superwoman, this fraulein with the forehand, and it seemed that forever she
Commentarywould have tennis between a Reich and a hard place, so dominant was Germany's Steffi Graf.Then her life and her game dropped like a top-spin volley. She had a broken bone and a broken heart, and her confidence, which had been as remarkable as her skill, took flight. Superwoman seemed not only too human but very fragile.
Trying to ski away from the paparazzi in February 1990, she fell and fractured her thumb and missed six weeks of play. But what happened to her body was hardly as devastating as what happened to her mind.
Her father was accused of infidelity, a charge that made headlines in more languages than anyone dared imagine and made Steffi, who was daddy's girl, lose her concentration for the task at hand. Journalists stopped asking about Steffi's charge to the net and instead wondered about Peter Graf being charged in a paternity suit.
You're supposed to leave your personal life behind when you step on the court or playing field, but for a 21-year-old woman, who'd had been instructed by her dad as well as nurtured by him, that was impossible. Steffi the omnipotent, the winner of the Grand Slam in 1988, became Steffi the vulnerable.
Steffi started taking it on the chin, and in the psyche, and Monica Seles took over the top spot in the women's rankings. Graf could win in places like Montreal or San Diego, but when it came to the majors, came to Roland Garros or Wimbledon, she was never better than No. 2, and most times not even that high.
A year ago at Wimbledon, where she had won in 1988 and 1989, the daily scandal sheets tortured her with tales of the baby Peter Graf supposedly fathered. And each post-match interview came with an admonition that only tennis would be discussed. And Steffi was upset in the semifinals by Zina Garrison.
At the U.S. Open, Steffi was beaten in the finals by Gabriela Sabatini.
The year changed, but Steffi's failures did not. Jana Novotna - Jana Novotna? - defeated Graf in the quarterfinals of the 1991 Australian Open.
Graf reached the semis of the French Open, in June, but then incurred her worst loss as a pro, 6-0, 6-2, to Aranxta Sanchez Vicario. Never before had Graf failed to win fewer than three games in a match.
Champions come back, they tell us. Steffi is a champion. As she proved Saturday at the masterpiece theater known as Wimbledon.
She came back to defeat a very shaky Gabriela Sabatini, and, truth be told, her own demons. Steffi won, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6, reaching into her past and coming to terms with the present, showing us the fortitude and wonderful shots on which a reputatin once had been constructed.
"I needed it," Graf said about a victory that was within two points of becoming a defeat. "I needed it for myself, just to win again. Getting through a tough match, not letting up, showing some guts. It makes it all special."
They become celebrities these tennis ingenues, taking the court in their teens and then taking the Concorde across the ocean. They're ordering room service when most children are being ordered to do the dishes. They are pampered and pestered and paid endorsement money that's obscene.
Yet, they're still kids, still growing, still insecure, still in need of friendship and joy.
"I'm always doubting everything," said Steffi. "I've never been the kind of person who says, `Everything's perfect.' I always look for what is not going right."
"When Steffi was winning 6-0, 6-0," said fellow pro Peanut Louie Harper, "people were scared of her. Then they started to get three games, and they weren't afraid any longer.
"She still is superwoman, but not an extra-superwoman."
She looked super enough during Wimbledon '91, never losing a match and only one set. The others may no longer be afraid of Steffi Graff, but more significantly Steffi Graf is no longer afraid of herself.