Healthy Graf Wins Her 50th Singles Title

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surgery has made it easier for Steffi Graf to breath in more ways than one. It has seemed to clear her mind as well as her sinuses.

Top-seeded Graf won her 50th career singles title Sunday at the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club, defeating fourth-seeded Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, 6-3, 6-2, in the $225,000 Great American Bank Tennis Tournament final.

Ever since her semifinal loss to Zina Garrison at Wimbledon, much ado has been made about everything Graf has said, but particularly about what she hasn't said.

Her personal problems, stemming from her father's alleged dangerous liaisons with a model, were reported by some tabloids as the reason she abruptly left Wimbledon and returned briefly to her home in West Germany.

Graf has said all along that surgery was the lone reason for her sudden flight from England. Her recent performances would seem to support her contentions that she is healthier as a result of the operation.

Graf said she has benefitted from the surgery and pronounced herself fit for the U.S. Open, her next competition.

"Yes, I definitely feel much better," she said. "That's why I had surgery."

Pavel Slozil, Graf's coach, said her play has improved since surgery, but the most dramatic change has been in her attitude.

"It's especially good" Slozil said, "and it's important because now she believes she can play good tennis again."

He said Graf's problems--she also injured her thumb earlier in the year and was forced to sit out two tournaments--are becoming a thing of the past.

"She had a lot of problems before," Slozil said. "Finally, most of them are behind her."

And fading from Graf's memory.

"It's been said that after the last couple of (tournaments) that I'm not as strong as before," she said, "but if you know what I've gone through the last couple of months, you know why it's not easy to come back, and you understand it a little better if you think about it."

Against Maleeva-Fragniere, she looked liked the old Graf. Her trademark power forehand sizzled and she never let the native Bulgarian, now of Switzerland, get into the match.

"I was holding back on some shots," Maleeva-Fragniere said, "and not going for the winners. This was the difference."

But she was pleased with her showing in the tournament.

"I'm very happy overall," she said. "I played some good tennis this week. It gives me some confidence, this tournament. I played some good matches this week."

Said Graf: "I pretty much knew what to expect. It's up to me to be aggressive and not let her get into the match."

Maleeva-Fragniere said her right shoulder was hurting her a little, but not enough to make a difference.

"I was a little bit slow, a little tired from playing a semifinal match late last night," she said.

Sunday's victory in San Diego gives Graf back-to-back singles titles, having won the Canadian Open Aug. 5 in Montreal. Graf's next competition is the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., but she will appear in an exhibition tournament, along with Jennifer Capriati, in Mahwah, N.J., Aug. 20.

She said this tournament and Canada were good warmups for her next Grand Slam appearance in New York.

"I've played two tournaments in a row," she said. "And I think playing those 10 matches gave me a lot of experience, and gave me the kind of match practice I needed."

Graf's record is a staggering 279-11, and three of her losses have been this year. Her 50 singles titles have been surpassed only by Chris Evert with 157, and Martina Navratilova, with 152.

Friday, Graf celebrates her third anniversary as the No. 1 player in the world, and on Aug. 27, she will break Navratilova's record of 157 weeks at the top of the rankings.

But how much do titles, rankings and records all mean to Graf?

"When I think about it," she said, I enjoy looking at them. Those kinds of things are nice to look at, but I just keep going."

Maleeva-Fragniere said it will be difficult for Graf to stay at the top for another long stretch.

"It's very difficult to say for how long," she said, "because (Monica) Seles is playing well, (Gabriela) Sabatini is playing well, and Martina (Navratilova) is playing well, so everyone is getting much closer."

The $45,000 first-prize money upped Graf's earnings this year to $814,941--passing Seles, who has $788,696--to move her into second among the tour's leading money winners. Although ranked second behind Graf, Navratilova is No. 1 in prize money, with $900,384.

Navratilova could have moved closer to the million dollar mark had she not withdrawn from this tournament early in the week.

Tennis Notes

Patty Fendick and Zina Garrison defeated Elise Burgin and Escondido's Ros Fairbank-Nideffer in the doubles final, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5). . . . Steffi Graf said she will do everything within her power to return to San Diego next year. "I can definitely say that I'll be back again. Weather-wise, it's perfect. Everything. . . . from every point you look at it, I like it very, very much."

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