There's a new natural law in the universe, as undeniable as gravity: Steffi Graf cannot be stopped. Life has done everything to put her through hell—thrown her father in jail, put her through debilitating surgeries, brought back Monica Seles—but she has beaten all of it back like so many small balls. She has reached a point defying all athletic logic. Players now fear taking a lead over her because that just means, as Lindsay Davenport says, "Oh, no, you've made her mad." Last Thursday in Key Biscayne, Fla., as the announcer boomed out Graf's monotonously brilliant record over stadium court at the Lipton Championships, coach Marcel Freeman paused on a nearby practice court, looked at his pupil, Chanda Rubin, and said in exasperation, "Listen to that. She's lost, like, two matches in seven years. You've got to take her out—just on general principle."
Freeman wasn't the only one wishing for that result. Women's tennis has been so afflicted by galloping melodrama the past few years, so consumed by comebacks and flameouts, that Rubin's recent blossoming has been welcomed with a fervor usually reserved for the newest Nike ad. Seles aside, Rubin was, for tennis junkies, the talk of the 1996 Australian Open, where her huge forehand, her three-set loss to Seles in the semis and her penchant for winning marathon matches set the hype machine running at a low hum. It didn't hurt, either, that Rubin possesses that rare tennis triple: She is black, American and extraordinarily self-assured. "I can play with anybody," Rubin says. "Including her."
Not yet. Since fighting off three match points in a breakthrough win over Jana Novotna in the third round of last year's French Open, the 20-year-old Rubin has shown she can handle the big names on tour—except Graf, to whom she has lost all four times they have played. In last Saturday's final, the biggest of Rubin's career, she couldn't fathom Graf's slice backhand, blasted a slew of unforced errors and wilted in the heat 6-1, 6-3. Rubin is now ranked a career-high No. 7 in the world, but Graf showed her the sizable gap that remains between there and the top. "With someone like Arantxa [S�nchez Vicario] or Monica, there's just not quite the same oppressiveness as Graf," Rubin says.
Oppressive might be the word to describe the burdens heaped on Graf last year. She trudged through the summer and fall carrying a weight so heavy it seemed to be crushing her. While she was off winning the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the German government investigated and then arrested her father, Peter, who had managed her finances throughout her career, for failing to pay millions in income taxes. The lasting image of her triumphant U.S. Open run was not of her on the court after her classic win in the final over Seles but of her frantic, sobbing race out of the interview room.
But at Lipton, Graf steamrollered to her second straight tournament victory of the year with a visible joy. She is now, oddly enough, playing the happiest tennis of her life.
"I appreciate tennis [now] more than any other time," Graf says. "I feel a lot looser because I'm here. Nothing else touches me right now—no phone calls, no faxes. I really appreciate these past few weeks because I know how it was at home."
In December, Graf went back to Germany to take control of her finances for the first time. In a strange twist, she met with tennis impresario Ion Tiriac, who—as a result of a disagreement with Peter over Steffi's appearance fee for a tournament Tiriac runs in Essen, Germany—had provided the information that prompted the government probe of Graf's finances. Although Graf remains a client of Advantage International, she does not deny she is considering a change, and she could well end up being managed by Tiriac. Graf admits she doesn't know whom to trust.
"I was lucky to have my father to keep me away from all that, honestly," Graf says. She never knew how much of a strain it would be to understand her own affairs. "I tried too hard. I was hoping that the more energy I put into it, the better things would go. But then you realize: It doesn't change anything. At the end of my stay I couldn't sleep anymore. I was worn down so badly."
Tennis freed her. When Graf returned to her home in Boca Raton, Fla., in February, she couldn't wait to hit the court. "If you have to deal with these things, you realize what a great life you have on tour, you know how great it is just to focus on tennis," Graf says. "That's something I've not treasured as much as I do now."
She's not the only one. The 1996 Lipton also proved a milestone for wunderkind-turned-cautionary-tale Jennifer Capriati, who bulled her way into the fourth round in the best performance of her incipient comeback, and also left behind her muddled teenage years, turning 20 last Friday. Lipton marked Capriati's first appearance in South Florida since her arrest for marijuana possession in a Coral Gables motel room two years ago, and she showed up looking fit and seemingly prepared to stick with the sport. "I never thought I was just completely done with tennis," Capriati says. "I just knew that it was inside me and it is what I do best."