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A New Outlook

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kristie Boogert of the Netherlands was at the net and Steffi Graf delved deep into the recesses of her memory, then pulled out an old selection.

A backhand passing shot--with topspin.

That is no misprint. Graf can hit that shot--it was a major component in her 1993 Wimbledon final victory against Jana Novotna--but she prefers to hit a beguiling slice backhand.

The topspin shot ripped past Boogert for a clean winner, and Graf threw back her head in delight, laughing at her success. Afterward, she was in a playful mood despite the cool and rainy conditions earlier this month at Birmingham, England.

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Graf was buoyant when an acquaintance jokingly suggested a wager on the United States-Germany World Cup soccer match.

“No, it would be too easy to take your money,” she said, laughing.

A week later, at Eastbourne, Graf was not laughing. Playing 17-year-old Anna Kournikova, she was taking on the chair umpire too. An angry Graf, who lost in three sets to Kournikova in the quarterfinals, asked for the removal of line judges and then refused to shake hands with the umpire. She couldn’t recall having done that in her long career.

So, is this any picture of a haunted, hunted champion on the brink of walking away from the game?

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If the winner of 21 Grand Slam tournament singles titles were not deadly serious about Wimbledon, she would not have been rumbling around rainy England, trying to work out the kinks at the smaller stops before hitting the first-run setting and bright lights of London.

Graf missed the tournament last year because of knee surgery and, thanks to a contrary left hamstring, her reappearance at Wimbledon, which starts Monday, had never been a sure thing. So when the seven-time Wimbledon champion strides onto the grass courts of the All England Club against 48th-ranked Gala Leon Garcia of Spain in the first round, it will represent the fulfillment of an enduring wish.

“After the last one, two years ago, that’s enough of a goal,” said Graf, 29. “I just want to get to Wimbledon first.”

At Birmingham, Graf’s confidence seemed to increase from set to set. In her first match on grass since 1996, she struggled against friend and occasional doubles partner Rennae Stubbs of Australia, winning in three sets, then defeated Boogert and Magui Serna of Spain in straight sets.

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Then the rain returned and Graf was unable to finish her semifinal match and the tournament was canceled.

At Eastbourne, her optimism grew for two reasons. For once, she had no physical problems and lost only three games, to Samantha Smith of England, giving her four solid matches on grass. And then, Wimbledon officials seeded her fourth and the draw appeared favorable. She could play Mary Pierce in the round of 16.

Graf is in the same quarter as Monica Seles but Seles, though a finalist in 1992, is not as proficient on grass as on other surfaces.

“I’m not a person who likes to look far ahead, but it’s a good draw,” Graf said. “You never know.”

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Already, she had gained confidence. At Birmingham, when wished good luck against Boogert, she shook her head and said, “I need it.”

But Graf did laugh when she was informed at Birmingham that bookmaker William Hill had installed her as the second favorite at Wimbledon, behind defending champion Martina Hingis.

“All right!” she said. “I don’t know about that. We’ll see.”

With the physical problems besetting Graf since that reconstructive knee surgery a year ago, she has reason to be circumspect about her future. A few weeks ago, she pulled out of the French Open, telling a German magazine that another setback could mean retirement.

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“Absolutely,” she said, nodding at the recollection. “I said what I said. I’m just at the point where I have had so much, even after they told me, after the operation, ‘You will have problems.’ ”

Graf pulled back her chair and pointed to her feet.

“They mechanically changed things,” she said of the operation. “For example, I used to walk like that [with feet pointing in]. Now this [foot] goes out like this. I’ve changed the way I’m walking. They told me I would have problems, but I didn’t expect it to be this long.”

It was difficult because she did show a glimmer of promise in March at Indian Wells, Calif., pushing second-ranked Lindsay Davenport before the hamstring made her hobble away in the third set in the semifinals.

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“It gets very difficult to always start all over again,” Graf said. “Even if you have these breaks, it’s not really breaks, because you’re doing therapy, acupuncture, doctors. You just get tired of the whole process.

“If you see the light once in a while, that’s OK. I know if I could get it together, I’d be fine. I just haven’t got to that point.”

After the injury against Davenport, Graf ruefully mentioned some body parts she hadn’t injured yet. Then came another calf injury, the right hamstring and, finally, shin splints.

That seemed like a twist of fate designed by a practical joker, because Graf was only hitting about half an hour a day.

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“Shin splints are from overuse!” she said. “I was saying, ‘How am I overusing it? I’m not doing anything!’ It got to the point, it’s starting to be funny. I didn’t know what else would come up.”

Progress led her to Birmingham and the tiny tournament at the Edgbaston Priory Club. Actually, progress for Graf meant not being injured.

She questioned her decision to play when she hit her first ball on the soft court at the Priory Club.

“When Rennae [Stubbs] hit the first ball, it didn’t even bounce,” Graf said, giggling. “I was looking at Rennae, and I’m like, ‘What is this? Where am I?’ ”

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But, as Stubbs noted, Graf used a topspin backhand against her too.

“She passed me a couple of times with it too,” said Stubbs, who has won two doubles titles with Graf. “I couldn’t believe it, especially with the court being so soft. She comes up with the shots when she needs to--that’s what makes champions.”

Even champions get rusty after long layoffs, however. She served effectively against Serna but double-faulted seven times against Kournikova.

Graf noted the increased fan appreciation, with spectators pulling for a successful comeback. Seles was asked whether the players had missed Graf as a competitor.

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“Obviously, as an athlete, you want to compete with the best,” she said. “Steffi is definitely in that group.”

Said Boogert: “I’ve always had a lot of respect for Steffi. She went out and others took over. It’s not like she was still there. It would be a sad ending [if she retired now].”

Stubbs said a strong Graf would help the competitive mix: the group of brash teenagers with the so-called veterans, Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Graf, all still twentysomethings.

“She’s proved me wrong many times,” Stubbs said. “And I’m sure she’ll prove me wrong again this time. There’s no one more competitive and strong as she is. And if she doesn’t make it, she’ll say, ‘OK, I’ve had a fair career and I can walk away happy.’

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“At the same time, she’s not the type of person to give up without trying and trying.”

Wimbledon is the result of Graf’s long quest. Although she won her first Grand Slam event at the 1987 French Open, there is no other tournament as special to her as Wimbledon.

It was the only tennis event she watched regularly on television growing up. At 12, she jumped at the chance to see it when she was in England for a team competition. To her, it seemed much smaller than it appeared on TV.

In 1983, she lost in qualifying at Wimbledon.

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“I would never forget it--it was my birthday,” she said. “I’ve never won on my birthday. That’s a great statistic for you.”

Then came an epic fourth-round match in 1984 against British favorite Jo Durie.

“I played for the first time in the stadium, against Jo Durie,” Graf said. “I lost, I think, 8-6 [actually, 9-7], in the third. I was devastated. I almost ran off the court. But Jo had to pull me back, and said, ‘You have to do the curtsy [for royalty].’ I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was so embarrassed.”

Potential insult to royalty averted, Graf eventually realized that this strange surface filled with bad bounces might work in her favor.

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“I really started to get the feeling I would do well on grass when I was 17 and I lost to Martina [Navratilova in the final],” she said. “At first, everybody said you need to be a serve-and-volley player and all that. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s something I’m not very good at.’

“So it took me a few years to realize that surface would suit me. I know, some transformation for me.”

Graf is hard-pressed to name her favorite Wimbledon championship.

“I guess the first one, and every single one that came after,” she said. “At the time you stand there, it’s so special. It’s difficult to single any one out.”

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Considering what she has been through, Graf truly believed she might never play on a grass-court match again at Wimbledon, or anywhere else. Which is why she is looking ahead to her non-tennis future, knowing it could all be one pulled hamstring away.

She wants to travel, having never been to China or anywhere in Africa. Her list is getting long.

“Hundreds [of things],” she said. “Today I wrote down a few more things. A lot to do with traveling, learning about different things. I don’t want to talk about that right now.”

The off-court stuff can wait until she’s through on it.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wimbledon Facts

* When: Begins Monday. Women’s final Saturday, July 4. Men’s final Sunday, July 5.

* Where: All-England Club, Wimbledon, England.

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* Last year’s finals: MEN--Pete Sampras defeated Cedric Pioline, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4; WOMEN--Martina Hingis defeated Jana Novotna, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

* Top-seeded men: 1. Pete Sampras, 2. Marcelo Rios, 3. Petr Korda, 4. Greg Rusedski, 5. Carlos Moya.

* Top-seeded women: 1. Martina Hingis, 2 Lindsay Davenport, 3. Jana Novotna, 4. Steffi Graf, 5. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

* TV: FIRST WEEK--Monday-Friday, HBO, 6 a.m.-noon; Saturday, NBC, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; Sunday, June 28, off day (highlights from earlier matches, NBC, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.). SECOND WEEK--HBO and NBC share coverage of round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals Monday-Friday, June 29-July 3. NBC has finals July 4-5.

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