Graf Gets Clearance Over Final Hurdle : Tennis: German lacked confidence, but she outlasts Seles in three sets for her 18th Grand Slam championship.


If it were possible to compare their anguish or measure the mutual injury, who would be the winner? Who might be the greater object of pity, the stabbed Monica Seles or the haunted Steffi Graf? Such was the manner in which the players have been one-dimensionally defined.

After Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s singles final, both tennis players are more likely to be thought of as champions, as people who faced adversity and dealt with it with grace.

Graf won, 7-6 (8-6), 0-6, 6-3, but each understood and respected what the other had overcome simply to take the court.


“This is the biggest win I have ever achieved,” Graf said of her 18th Grand Slam tournament title. “There is nothing that has come close to this one. There were a lot of obstacles to climb over. It was difficult to focus, to be able to go through all that. I didn’t think I could do it.”

Graf, 26, became the first woman to win each of four Grand Slam tournaments four times. Equally impressive has been her record this year: The No. 1-ranked Graf is 39-1, has lost eight sets and has won the three Grand Slam tournaments she has entered.

Seles went 28 months between tournaments, after a deranged fan of Graf’s stabbed Seles in the back during a changeover at a tournament in Germany on April 30, 1993. After physical and mental rehabilitation, the former No. 1 returned to professional tennis only a month ago.

Seles has been a chattering and giggling whirlwind, referring to her attack as “the box” where she puts her painful memories.

Graf had become the darker figure. During the tournament her thoughts were with her father, who is in a German prison on tax evasion charges. She has been stalked at her apartment by an obsessed fan, chased by paparazzi , plagued by one old injury and one new.

Graf has laid low all year, mostly because of injury. The one Grand Slam event she missed, the Australian Open in January, came when the painful bone spurs in her back prevented her from playing for weeks at a time. Later in the season, it became common for Graf to enter then drop out of tournaments and Fed Cup matches.

When she did play, she seemed to take little joy from it. Already intensely private, Graf retreated into a protective space that seemed defined by the lines on the tennis court.


Even winning failed to raise her spirits. Graf appeared dejected after Friday’s semifinal victory over Gabriela Sabatini and practically apologized ahead of time for her expected loss in the final. For a player whose career has had as its hallmark tremendous confidence, Graf’s outlook seemed alien.

“I really didn’t think I could do it, basically,” Graf said. “Even at the beginning of the tournament, I didn’t think I had a chance of being where I am right now. It’s strange for me to say it because it doesn’t seem right. Going out there today, I didn’t think I would have the tools. I didn’t have that positive attitude.

“One year or nine months ago I didn’t expect to have this kind of year, for a lot of reasons. It’s been a dream. It’s unreal right now. I came back into the locker room and they [players] drenched me in beer.”

Seles, too, has been welcomed back into the fold. Not even her first loss since her comeback was enough to suppress a giggle.

“The last three weeks have been amazing,” she said. “From being on the tennis court and playing some great tennis to off the court also, the support I felt from fans. I just felt, wow, I made the right decision [to come back], which helped me tremendously.”

The first-set tiebreaker was decided by two mistakes. The first appeared fateful for Graf, who double-faulted to give Seles set point on her serve.


Seles served down the middle and, believing she had aced Graf and won the set at 7-5, skipped back to her chair. The serve was called out and Seles’ 66-m.p.h. second serve was consumed by Graf’s forehand winner.

Graf won the tiebreaker but collapsed curiously in the second set. Seles tired in the third, and, more to the point, did not win the big points.

The match ended as Seles smacked a forehand into the net. Graf, after congratulating Seles, went to her mother, Heidi. Together the Graf women cried in each other’s arms.

Absent but not unfelt, was the presence of Peter Graf, who has twice brought public humiliation and private pain to his daughter.

Steffi was crushed when a model presented her father with a paternity suit a few years ago. This summer she had barely returned to Germany after winning Wimbledon when news broke that federal agents had searched Graf’s three homes and seized documents pertaining to her finances, which she had always entrusted to her father.

Peter Graf was placed in the hospital ward of Mannheim State Prison. Under the terms of his incarceration, he may not speak to anyone in his family.


The prospects of seeing her father, Graf said Saturday, were very slight. Asked if she would have a chance to share the victory with him, Graf said, “I don’t think so,” then passed her hands in front of her face and abruptly left the interview room.

As gratifying as Saturday’s victory was, tennis doesn’t seem to be enough to deaden her pain. Graf has made it clear that she would like to reduce her playing schedule next year. At the time the guidelines of Seles’ return to the tour were being discussed, Graf explored a scenario that would allow her to play fewer tournaments without being penalized by the tour’s point system.

Whether the tour decides to accommodate Graf’s request, she may already be formulating her plan: After Saturday’s match, she took all six rackets from her bag and threw them into the crowd. Whether the gesture was generous or symbolic remains to be seen.