WIMBLEDON, England — You can’t play tennis against a mirror, so Steffi Graf must settle for the women they put in front of her. They are not as good as she is. They are not as haunting as her lonesome quest for perfection. They do not spook her, or cause her to lose sleep. She can beat them all, even when she stumbles.
She stumbled often against Jana Novotna in Thursday’s semifinal. Graf double-faulted. Graf foot-faulted. Graf hit long. Graf whiffed at Novotna’s serve. Whiffed? As in “swing and a miss”?
Yep. And she still won.
“I honestly felt great today,” said Novotna, who lost in three sets. “I was good at the net, good at the baseline.” She smiled and sounded proud of herself. “If I played this good against anyone else, I would have won.”
Steffi Graf is not anyone else. And when your semifinal opponent at Wimbledon is just happy to make a decent showing, there is something missing from the field.
Which is why Graf needs Monica Seles the way fire needs oxygen. Seles was the last person to truly threaten Graf’s dominance. Without her, Steffi is almost too good for her own good, stitching a streak that makes Cal Ripken look like part- time help. She has not lost a match. Not this week. Not this month.
Not this year.
Steffi Graf is perfect for 1995 — 31 matches, 31 victories, including the French Open and soon to include — if she can beat the clay-loving Arantxa Sanchez Vicario on grass — her sixth Wimbledon. And yet you listen to Graf, you read the in- depth interviews, and you sense a troubled soul, restless, agitated, in need of something more. Dark personal life her business
Now, I am not in the business of psychoanalyzing Graf — the way Sports Illustrated enjoys doing, opening a profile story with “Torture and boredom, boredom and torture,” as if it’s just lie down on the couch, Steffi, and let our experts dissect your soul — and to be honest, I don’t really care if her bedroom is black and her furniture is black and she describes herself as
“emotionally dark.” She wants to be Morticia Adams, that’s her business.
But I have watched enough sports to know when someone is missing a challenge. And Graf, who was given a tennis racket in the crib, can only thrive against a foe who is living and breathing and daring her to win.
Besides the one in the mirror.
A healthy Seles is the best hope. People forget Seles — not Graf — was on top of the tennis world two years ago when a lunatic jumped from the stands and put a knife in her back. A few months earlier, Graf and Seles had met in the Australian Open final; Seles, who is five years younger, won in three sets. The year before, the pair went overtime at the French, producing one of the most compelling finals ever at Roland Garros — with Seles finally winning the last set, 10-8.
You don’t see anyone beating Graf, 10-8, these days, unless they’re playing gin rummy. Sanchez Vicario is the toughest of the bunch, but her overall game still doesn’t equal Graf’s. In fact, Graf’s toughest opponent seems to be her compulsion with fitness. Last spring, as the undisputed No. 1, she went on a inexplicable three-week training binge that left her rubber- legged for the French. Just before this Wimbledon, she had to sit a few days after straining her wrist on the last serve of a grueling practice.
It’s almost as if she needs to make it difficult — the way Larry Bird of the Celtics used to fight the boredom of regular-season games by passing up easy shots and creating harder ones. That’s OK for Boston in February.
It is not OK for London in July. Monica’s return would end debate
When Seles was stabbed, Graf’s first reaction was, “Oh, God, I hope it’s not one of my crazy fans.”
As it turns out, it was. Guenter Parche, an unemployed German machine operator, said he stabbed Seles to restore Graf to her No. 1 ranking. And sick as it may be, that is exactly what happened. Graf has pretty much been No. 1 since (except for a brief injured period). And women’s tennis has been without its marquee matchup, and consequently, its rainbow’s end of drama.
Here is just one reason Steffi needs Monica: to prove that her current status didn’t come at knifepoint. There has been a hot debate about where to rank Seles should she return — which seems likely, considering her upcoming exhibition against Martina Navratilova — and as WTA officials favor restoring Seles to her No. 1 status, Graf balks.
“I don’t agree with the proposition,” she said.
She should. Seles didn’t pull a hamstring — she was stabbed at a WTA event, and, to a certain degree, tennis is responsible. As such, it cannot justify taking anything from Seles that she had before that day.
Besides, making her No. 1 simply gives her easier matches in the earlier rounds of tournaments, and thus boosts her return, which can only be good for the sport. If Seles has truly lost her talent or drive, she won’t stay No. 1 long.
But it’s good that Graf objects. It shows some fighting spirit. If she’s jealous of Seles, good. If she doesn’t like her, fine. Over the years, Graf has wrestled with paparazzi, a tyrannical father, even the horror of a lovesick fan who committed suicide in front of her. No wonder when she mumbles, “I’m very happy to make the Wimbldeon final,” she sounds as if she’s being gutted.
Enough. Her opponent should not be horror, or injury, or lesser players who congratulate themselves for losing well. Her opponent should be someone who, when swords cross, makes Graf’s heart race. The last woman to do that was Seles. And if any of that talent is still inside her wounded body, she cannot come back fast enough.