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Graf's anonymous new life

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Posted: Saturday January 20, 2001 10:45 AM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

MELBOURNE, Australia -- She sat on a metal folding chair deep in the tunnels of Rod Laver Arena, a blonde drape of hair obscuring a face that was buried in a paperback. Her famous legs were covered by jeans. She was sufficiently disguised so that dozens of security guards passed her without so much as one doing a doubletake.

It's been less than two years since won a Grand Slam and played tennis as well as anyone on the circuit. But now she had no interest in watching her former colleagues play, no interest in schmoozing in the lounge with tennis' subculture of coaches, agents and hangers-on, and lord knows no interest in engaging the media. She's at the Australian Open to support her boyfriend. And when he was done with his match, she would leave the complex as imperceptibly as possible, avoiding eye contact with anyone from her former life before hopping into a courtesy car which, appropriately, had tinted windows.

So it goes for Steffi Graf, who, 18 months removed from winning a Grand Slam title, is a non-entity in the sport she once dominated. Retiring athletes speak frequently of "walking away" from a sport. But one would be hard pressed to find a star who has peregrinated further away than Graf. In a short time, she has become a cipher on par with J.D. Salinger. Some of her endorsement deals, which were supposed to last for years, have lapsed because she's unwilling to make the most perfunctory of appearances. She was due to receive an honor at the ESPYs awards show in Vegas last year, but called the producers the afternoon of the telecast to back out. Countless offers to provide commentary and make token (read: paid) appearances at tournaments have been categorically declined. Her auf wiedersehen tour ended abruptly last year when she slipped on some steps at a Japanese temple a day before she was supposed to play Kimiko Date. Friends say that she can't even play golf -- much less run -- without feeling pain, and they wouldn't be surprised if she hasn't picked up a racket since.

If Graf has moved on, so, too, has the WTA Tour. It speaks well for the popularity and strength of the women's game that a short while after the greatest player of all time called it quits, her absence is scarcely noticed. Just compare tennis to the post- Michael Jordan NBA. We hear scant talk of players filling the "Graf vacuum" or the quest to find "the next Graf." Players with names like Williams, Davenport, Hingis and, yes, even Kournikova have greatly reduced the nostalgia. Graf is missed, but the show goes on.

It was Martina Navratilova who, rather harshly, characterized Graf as a "groupie" last year. In fact, Graf is the anti-groupie. Yes, she is still at events, supporting her significant other in an understated, dignified way. Yes, it's somewhat ironic that such a self-absorbed, monomaniacal athlete is suddenly at the whim of another top performer's schedule. But Graf wants so little to do with the tennis scene, she'd rather hide out in a dingy tunnel than show her face among her former peers. If, far, far away from the spotlight, she is finding the contentment that always seemed to elude her when she was racking up title and title, well, good for her.

Short volleys

From the Hmmmm Dept.: Chris Woodruff claims to have "more than a gut feeling" that Pat McEnroe will invite his brother, John, to play Davis Cup next month in Switzerland. ... It wasn't just fans and ATP administrators who took issue with Yevgeny Kafelnikov's complaint that tennis players make too little money. Said Andre Agassi: "He should take his prize money when he's done here and go buy some perspective." But when Kafelnikov was grilled after his four-set defeat of Woodruff, he stood firm: "I don't really care what the American Democratic opinion is." ... Amelie Mauresmo, still revered here after reaching the final two years ago, drew applause from the fans when she feigned ripping off her shirt -- à la Andrew Ilie -- after a solid, straight-set defeat of Iva Majoli. ... Remember the name Daja Bedanova. Her upset of Elena Dementieva -- who looked decidedly out of sorts adjusting to her new racket -- was no fluke. ... The injury bug nipped Mary Pierce again. Swathed in bandages and unable to reach the most pedestrian of shots, the seventh seed fell to Paola Suarez 6-3, 6-4. ... Memo to the USTA: The price of a personal pizza at the Australian Open is roughly $3 U.S.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports through the end of the Australian Open. Click here to send a question to his Mailbag.

Related information
Friday's On the Court: Aussies give new arena a Vode of approval
Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag: More foot-in-mouth disease
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