When the news surfaced on Feb. 9 that Steffi Graf had broken the thumb on her playing hand, followers of women's tennis could be forgiven for wondering whether she had in fact blown a gasket. Graf had won 52 straight matches with machinelike efficiency, but then, pursued by paparazzi in St. Moritz, she slipped and fell while wearing cross-country skis.
Notwithstanding the emergence of 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati during Graf's two-month convalescence, there's no reason to believe that Fr�ulein Forehand can't win another 52 matches in a row. Graf returned to action last week at the Bausch & Lomb Championships on the clay courts of Amelia Island, Fla., and though she wasn't entirely sharp, she won the tournament. She did eviscerate Petra Langrova and Andrea Temesvari—6-1, 6-0 and, for variety, 6-0, 6-1, respectively—in the first two rounds. However, Carling Bassett Seguso, herself returning from an extended sabbatical, fell narrowly, 6-4, 6-4, to Graf in the quarterfinals, and Natalia Zvereva actually took a set from Graf in the semis before wilting and losing 7-6, 6-7, 6-1. In Sunday's finals, Graf thrashed No. 3 seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-1, 6-0, surrendering only 19 points in the 47-minute match. "The way she plays today, nobody could've beaten her," Sanchez Vicario said afterward. "Every time I hit what I think is a winner she hits it back harder." Graf ran her streak to 57 and brought Martina Navratilova's six-year-old record of 74 consecutive wins clearly into focus.
One photographer that Graf hasn't attempted to flee from is Patrick Demarchelier, who shot a fashion spread on her that appears in the April issue of Vogue. A particularly stunning frame of Graf wearing (more or less) a black Norma Kamali maillot dress, adjusting her high heel and aiming her d�colletage lensward has set the women's tour abuzz. Bunte, a West German weekly, ran the revealing photo on its cover and sold more copies than it had in years. Graf is delighted at how the whole enterprise has turned out. "First people say, 'How's your thumb?' " she says. "The next thing they say is, 'Great modeling in Vogue! Even when I won the Grand Slam, I didn't get so many congratulations."
To be as dominant a woman athlete as Graf has been is, alas, to pick up all sorts of baggage along the way—masculine baggage. Peter Graf allowed as much when he said he was hoping to recast his daughter, who is 20, in a more feminine light. Curiously, while golfer Jan Stephenson touched off a controversy when she posed for pinup shots several years ago, reaction to Graf's modeling debut has been uniformly positive. "It's because everyone likes her so much," says one respected tour watcher. "People had been waiting for her to bust loose, and now that she has, they only wish her the best."
The leavening of Steffi's severe image (to be fair, that image is much less the result of anything in Steffi's demeanor than of Peter's Teutonic way of managing her business and tennis affairs) won't include taking up Playboy on what Peter told Vogue was a $750,000 offer for Steffi to pose even more revealingly. A Playboy spokeswoman knew of no such offer but said the magazine thinks a Graf pictorial is "a great idea." In short, the Grafs seem to be seeking an off-court persona for Steffi that, as the sponsor of last week's tournament might have put it, is neither hard nor soft but rigid and gas-permeable.
Meanwhile, pratfalls seem to be the only opponents capable of derailing Graf In 1985 she slipped on wet grass during the Australian Open and tore tendons in that same thumb. In '86, while she was in Prague for the Federation Cup, a patio table overturned and broke one of her toes At Amelia Island two years ago she went fishing, only to slip on wet leaves and sprain her right wrist. No wonder Graf considers a simple stroll through the press room to be an adventure. "I'm a magnet for trouble," she says. "If there are cables around, I'll trip over them."
Even as she recently ran through the woods near her native Br�hl, trying to stay in shape, Graf stumbled over a thicket of tree roots. "I kept my hands up in the air," she says with no little pride. "For the first time, I fell intelligently."
Look for her to keep tripping, stumbling and slipping. Even look for her on West Germany's Funniest Home Videos. Just don't look for her to fall from atop the women's game anytime soon.