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Inside Tennis

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Posted: Wednesday November 25, 1998 11:41 AM

This week's topics:
Lioness in Winter | Find Out What It Means to Pete 
Marcelo, Prince of Denmark | By the Numbers

Lioness in Winter  

Steffi Graf may be near the end of her career, but she's hardly toothless

By Ian Thomsen

Sports Illustrated
  Focused and finally fit, Graf hammered out wins over five Top 10 players in a two-week span. Manny Millan
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'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."

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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 six years."

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.

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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.

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

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By the Numbers  

3    Top 10 players Pete Sampras had defeated, through Sunday, in 1998.

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 effort."

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.

Issue date: November 30, 1998


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