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TENNIS / JULIE CART : Healed Back Might Have Led to Graf’s Calf Injury

That Steffi Graf has announced her withdrawal from the Australian Open is not a surprise. The shock was that it was a muscle in her calf, not her back, that proved her undoing.

Graf has been struggling because of back problems that have been at times inexplicable and always excruciating. The injury cut her season into two dissimilar halves: She started well by winning in Australia but ended badly in pain at the U.S. Open and fear and frustration at the Virginia Slims Championships.

At first undiagnosed, Graf’s back pain is now attributed to a bone spur in mid-back. Inflammation around the injury caused pain, and eventually Graf began playing while wearing a back brace.

By the Slims championships at the end of the year, Graf appeared wan and depressed. She was, she said the other day, “a little scared.”

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“I haven’t been able to practice hard for the last four or five months,” she said. “I’m back on the court now, but obviously it’s been very frustrating. I had pain but nothing worked. I had to take eight weeks off after the (U.S.) Open (in September). When nothing happened, that’s when I got a little scared.

“I wish I had been able to spend the time (away from tennis) differently, rather than at physical therapy and all the other things I have to do off the court now. I wish I had done these things before, earlier. I’ve always worked a lot, but I’ve never spent this much time on the Stairmaster or other things. I will spend less time on the court now.”

Graf, 25, said she sees that playing at such a high level beginning at such a young age has taken its toll. So has the physical pounding of playing on hard courts. Like most players today, Graf has discovered the importance of cross-training and work off the court. Stretching and yoga are now integral components of her training schedule.

Graf, who has spent the last two months in Boca Raton, Fla., said she has consulted doctors in Europe and the United States about her back and finally found relief in massage, spinal adjustment and stretching.

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Even though the bone spurs that have formed in her back are not likely to go away without surgery, Graf was adamantly against it.

“Surgery is never going to be an option for me,” she said. “I’m never going to have surgery. I’m too young for surgery.”

Indeed, Graf said the calf injury came about in part because her back was feeling so strong. Had her back not been totally healed, she said, she would not have been pushing so hard on the practice court twice a day and, possibly, not strained the muscle.

Graf has won the Australian Open four times and, given the reverence she has for Grand Slam events, it is understandable that she was disappointed. She lost in the opening round of Wimbledon, in the semifinals of the French Open and in the final of the U.S. Open.

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Graf, ranked No. 1, faces a demotion if Arantxa Sanchez Vicario wins the Australian Open.

It was suggested that with all the injuries and disappointments, Graf might have lost some of the joy she used to find in tennis. Her answer was immediate.

“That hasn’t changed at all. That’s something I’m 100% sure about,” she said, speaking slowly for emphasis. “If anything, it’s more of a pleasure going out on the court now than ever before. I’m extremely eager to play. Very, very. My desire is very big to get physically fit and back on the tour.”

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The Newsweek Champions Cup has announced that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will play in the March 6-13 event. Sampras, ranked No. 1 in the world, won it last year. Also in the field are Michael Chang, Todd Martin, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, Sergi Bruguera, Alberto Berasategui, Andrei Medvedev and Wayne Ferreira.

The tournament, the first “Super Nine” event of the season, is held at the Hyatt Grand Champions in Indian Wells.

Tennis Notes

Prosecutors in Hamburg, Germany, have decided that the sentence received by Guenter Parche for stabbing Monica Seles is too light. It has been 15 months since Parche was convicted of causing grievous bodily injury to Seles when he stabbed her during a changeover on April 30, 1993. The unemployed lathe operator was sentenced to two months’ probation after facing a possible five years in prison. The rationale: Diminished ability to distinguish right from wrong. Isn’t that the sort of person who should not be released to the streets? Parche will be retried March 21. . . . Second indication that no one is paying attention: Jim Pierce has been hired to coach a 14-year-old German tennis player. Here’s a guy whose coaching resume includes verbal abuse and stalking of his daughter, Mary, obscenity-laced tirades against her opponents, physical attacks on spectators and an eventual ban from WTA events. Just the sort of person to entrust to mold your teen-aged daughter.

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Will his fans still love him now that Andre Agassi has cut his hair? Gone is Agassi’s trademark Fabio-do, along with years of bleach-fried split ends. Agassi’s new buzz cut might appear to have lost him advertising opportunities (headbands, hats), but he might gain billboard space by shaving logos into his scalp. . . . Jennifer Capriati has flu and has withdrawn from a pre-Australian Open event in Sydney but is still hopeful of competing at the Open. Capriati, 18, has played in one event since her hiatus from the tour. . . . Martina Navratilova has requested that she be taken off the WTA rankings. She leaves the game ranked No. 8 and spent 19 consecutive years ranked in the top five.


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