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Hot Stuff
Alexander Wolf
January 27, 1997
After 18 months of pain and stress, Steffi Graf finally wilted in the blazing Australian sun
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January 27, 1997

Hot Stuff

After 18 months of pain and stress, Steffi Graf finally wilted in the blazing Australian sun

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Lindsay Davenport sounded like someone trapped in a supper club with a bad Las Vegas comic. "Oh, come on, come on, no, stop it," Davenport pleaded last Friday when someone told her that Steffi Graf, the Australian Open's top seed, was suffering from a bad back. "She always goes out and plays just fine. I don't want to know what's bothering her now."

Forgive Davenport her skepticism. For nearly a year and a half the women's tour had been waiting for Graf either to unravel emotionally from the legal travails of her father, Peter, or to crack physically from a succession of injuries. Through it all Steffi had somehow sustained a string of 45 Grand Slam match victories, six major titles and a firm grip on the No. 1 ranking, achievements that prompted Davenport's you're-killing-me comment. But in vaporizing heat at Melbourne Park on Sunday, something finally got to Graf. She fell 6-2, 7-5 to Amanda Coetzer of South Africa in the fourth round, joining four other top seeds to exit over the weekend: No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain, who lost 1-6,6-4, 8-6 to Dominique Van Roost of Belgium; No. 3 Conchita Martinez, also a Spaniard, who lost 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 to another Belgian, Sabine Appelmans; and No. 5 Anke Huber of Germany, who fell 6-2, 6-3 to Mary Pierce of France. Even Davenport, the No. 7 seed, bowed out 7-6, 6-4 to fellow American Kimberly Po. Never before had so many single-digit women's seeds been swept away during the first week of a Grand Slam tournament.

In the meantime, back in Germany, the prosecution and defense were delivering final arguments in Peter Graf's tax evasion trial in Mannheim, where a verdict on charges that he had failed to pay nearly $13 million in taxes for his daughter is expected on Friday, the eve of the Australian Open women's final. Prosecutor Hubert Jobski has accused Graf of spinning "a web of lies" and asked that he be given a prison term of six years and nine months in addition to the 15 months he has already served. Defense lawyer Franz Salditt describes his client as a "helpless, lost man," addled by alcoholism, ignorant of the minutiae of the German tax code he admittedly violated and wronged by his advisers and tax officials. The Graf family says it has made restitution of all unpaid back taxes and maintains that Steffi knew nothing of her father's handling of her finances. But authorities in her homeland have not absolved her of complicity in the matter.

For months none of this affected Graf's game. It was as if she had her own retractable roof, like the one on the main structure at Melbourne's National Tennis Centre. "She has dealt with it all really well," Coetzer said before their match. "I think tennis is a bit of an outlet for her. She manages to step on the court and just put it all aside."

If so, on Sunday, Graf may have been done in by mere physical factors: that chronically troublesome back; an infected big toe that she had treated on Saturday; and simple exhaustion from heat so withering that Martínez called it "a joke." There had been signs of Graf's vulnerability earlier in the week. She fell behind 0-4 in her second-round match against Latvia's Larisa Neiland before rallying to win 7-5, 6-2, and in the third round she trailed Inés Gorrochategui of Argentina 2-5 before prevailing 7-5, 6-3. But Coetzer, ranked 12th, is too formidable an opponent to favor with the charity of an early advantage. As the 5'2" baseliner took the first-set, the sports book operating in Melbourne Park (which had listed Graf as a 4-to-7 favorite to win her 22nd Grand Slam singles title) sensed something seismic was about to happen to the women's draw and suspended all betting.

Graf seemed briefly to find a rhythm in the second set, and she went up 4-0. But she dropped the next two games, and her epic seventh-game victory was Pyrrhic. Over 17 minutes and 10 deuces, Graf squandered six game points—and drove two point-blank overheads into the net—before holding serve. Then, at 5-4, she muffed a couple of set points, and Coetzer sensed that the match was hers for the taking, if not immediately, then in a third set.

There would be no third set. The breezeless proscenium of Centre Court, where temperatures reached 130°, scarcely fazed Coetzer, who grew up on the edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert. Her coach and trainer, Gavin Hopper, is a Melbournian with experience whipping into shape those most indefatigable of athletes, Aussie Rules footballers. He honed Coetzer's ground-strokes by having her rally with men, and before the Graf match he counseled her to probe her opponent's vaunted forehand. Finding it shaky, Coetzer continued to challenge Graf, who wound up committing 53 unforced errors and who between points sought refuge in a thin strip of shade behind the baseline. After match point Graf left her rackets and bag at Centre Court, passed up the postmatch press conference and returned to her hotel for rest and rehydration. By the time she was ready to fly on to Tokyo for the next WTA Tour stop, the touts had put the only survivor among the top seven seeds, No. 4 Martina Hingis of Switzerland, at 4 to 7 to win her first Grand Slam singles title.

As Steffi waits to be cleared by the tax authorities, she faces another probe with potential consequences for her career. Prosecutors introduced evidence at her father's trial that she received more than $600,000 in payments that might constitute improper appearance fees. Günter Sanders, the executive director of the German Tennis Federation, testified in September that his organization had paid Peter Graf hundreds of thousands of dollars a year between 1990 and 1993 in connection with tournaments the federation staged in Berlin and Hamburg. Whether that money was to ensure Steffi's participation (which Women's Tennis Association rules would prohibit) or was simply compensation for "promotional work" she might have done in connection with the event (which the rules would permit) has yet to be settled. Also unclear is whether Steffi was aware of those payments and if she was not, whether the WTA would still consider her subject to punishment. (Sanctions could include a fine of as much as $50,000 and up to a 90-day suspension, plus the return of any improper fees received.) Last week Steffi would not comment on the matter, other than to say she was cooperating with the WTA.

Not long ago, as Graf was posing for a magazine shoot, her impatience and her aversion to not being in control were plainly evident. "How much longer will this take?" she wanted to know. "As long as it takes you to look sexy," the photographer replied. His riposte momentarily relaxed her, touching off several minutes of mugging that gave them both what they wanted. But public vulnerability is not a state Graf much likes, particularly now, as she continues trying to establish a zone of privacy and safety between an ever-encroaching outside world and a domestic one that long ago lost its tranquillity. Now 27, she was a teenager when her family was last clear of problems created by her scapegrace father, whether of the tax, drinking or affair-with-a-nude-model variety.

No wonder, then, that when she was asked last week what she did with the stuffed animals and other gewgaws that fans give her for good luck, Graf said she keeps them all. "We've got huge boxes of them," she said. "I used to stack them up in my bedroom, but there isn't enough room there anymore."

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