At 18, Stephanie Rehe found out that the only thing worse than losing at tennis is knowing you might never play it again.
So when Rehe played for the first time in 21 months last week in San Diego and happened to face Steffi Graf in the first round, it wasn't nearly as daunting as the car wreck in which she suffered two herniated disks.
"Actually, with everything I had gone through, not knowing whether I would be back playing tennis, it was a dream come true," Rehe said.
The 20-year-old, whose parents live in Oceanside, lost to Graf, but won the first match of her comeback Monday, defeating Betsy Nagelsen, 6-4, 6-3, in the first round of the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles at Manhattan Country Club.
When Nagelsen double-faulted on match point, Rehe turned to the stands and smiled broadly at her father, Hans.
"I was just so happy because I don't think anybody expected me to make it back," Rehe said. "I'm just really excited."
Many followers of Southern California junior tennis were just as excited when Rehe was making her way through the age-group championships while living in Highland. She was ranked No. 1 in the 12s, 14s, 16s and 18s and in 1983 was the first player to be No. 1 in the 14s and 16s at the same time.
The youngest player to be ranked on the pro computer--at 13 years 2 months--Rehe was also the youngest to compete in a Virginia Slims tournament.
With a game devoted to powerful groundstrokes, especially from the forehand side, Rehe was the Women's International Tennis Assn.'s top newcomer in 1986, won her first tournament in '87 and two more in '88.
Rehe was ranked as high as No. 13 and was riding in a car provided by a tournament in Chicago in November of 1988 when her fortunes changed. The car was hit broadside and Rehe's back was injured.
Rehe had surgery to remove bone spurs as well as portions of her lower lumbar disks, which were causing pressure on the nerves.
The surgery was performed by Dr. Arthur White, the physician who operated on San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana. Even then, Rehe plotted a comeback.
"I felt like if Joe could come back, I could come back," she said.
But it wasn't as easy or as quick as Rehe imagined. In addition to daily physical therapy, Rehe's rehabilitation program still includes swimming, running, strength training on exercise equipment and speed training.
According to trainer Randy Huntington, Rehe is nearly all the way back, at least physically.
"She's faster, quicker and stronger than before the accident," Huntington said. "Right now, she's 80% of what she could be. I expect her to be at the top of her game by next February."
Rehe is playing with a temporary ranking of No. 44, which the WTA gave her because of her injury. She can play two other events with the ranking before she loses it and gains a new one according to her results.
If Rehe's ranking is still too low for direct entry into tournaments, she is allowed three wild cards.
Gene Malin, Rehe's coach, expects Rehe to be ranked in the top 25 in 1991.
"We're optimistic, but realistic, too," Malin said.
It was a war of attrition Monday: Debbie Graham, who didn't get into the main draw until she won a qualifying match Sunday afternoon, defeated Robin White, who helped the Strings win the Domino's Pizza TeamTennis title Sunday night. Graham, the 19-year-old NCAA singles champion as a sophomore at Stanford, defeated White, 7-5, 7-5. White drew a code violation from chair umpire Dick Willey for an audible obscenity in the second set. It all made for an unusually interesting scorecard. Willey wrote the following under Description of Violation: "After strongly disagreeing with a baseline call, she (White) said 'What the . . . are you being paid for?' " In the second round, Graham meets top-seeded Martina Navratilova, who had a first-round bye. "I'm looking forward to playing her," said Graham. "I have nothing to lose. But all my friends are going to come so they can laugh." . . . Mary Pierce, 15, of France won her first-round match over Andrea Temesvari of Hungary, 6-0, 6-2.