Steffi Graf sat there when it was over Saturday, calling it a dream and her greatest victory, that nothing else even came close.
A few minutes later the tears of anguish that flowed out of the emotional hurt she has been feeling for the last three months told you why.
It was 45 minutes after her momentous 7-6 (7-5), 0-6, 6-3 victory over the equally tortured Monica Seles in the final of the U.S. Open and she was explaining that she had not talked to her father, Peter Graf, since he was imprisoned in Germany to await trial on tax evasion charges.
She said there probably would not be a chance to talk to him, even though she is flying to Germany later this week.
And then, overcome by the weight of this burden and perhaps by the unending parade of physical and mental pain she has suffered this year, she buried her head in her hands and wept.
She rose, her head down, and marched quickly from the postmatch interview room, returning later to talk to the German media.
Only one other great of women’s tennis in recent memory had gone through this kind of trauma, and she was on the other side of the net, providing the opposition in what surley will go down as one of the most important and well-played finals in women’s tennis history.
It wasn’t just the quality of play, which was at a very high level, but the plot line as these two fought back demons that have plagued their lives to show why they are so far above the rest of the players on the WTA Tour.
“I am definitely going to celebrate big tonight, very big, and I will be out there tomorrow to watch the doubles,” Graf said. Her friend, Rennae Stubbs, is playing the final with Brenda Schultz-McCarthy of Florida.
Before she broke down, Graf called the match “a dream. It is unreal now. It seems unreal,” she said, looking a little worn but exhilerated.
When Seles, fighting but fading at the end, hammered the final shot into the net, Graf dropped her racket and raced to the stands to hug her coach, Heinz Gunthardt.
Then she went to the net where she and Seles hugged and exchanged a few words. Then it was off to hug and kiss her mother, Heidi.
When she got to the locker room, Stubbs was waiting with a posse of friends to douse Graf with beer.
There was no way to predict with any certainty who would win. Seles has tendinitis in her left knee, and who knew how it would hold up with Graf running her from side to side. Graf has a bone spur on her left foot and underwent an MRI Friday night. And, of course, there’s all the emotional damage that has affected both women.
“I really didn’t have that positive attitude that sometimes I have and even today in practice I didn’t feel great,” Graf said. “I didn’t feel the shots were going. But, you know, I am sometimes like that.”
In fact, the match turned out to be brilliant. Graf crashed her flat forehands and sliced her backhands, mixing in a few drops shots to test Seles’ endurance and served wonderfully. Seles blasted flat shots off both sides, forcing Graf to play more defensive tennis than she has.
It was Graf’s serve that won the first set as she won 17 of her final 21 service points. Then she completely lost her game and, with Seles cruising into the third set, there were questions about Graf’s injury.
She was fine. It was Seles who slowed.
She rallied briefly to make it 4-2, but Graf had her serve back and was hitting the lengthier shots now.
“I was just really happy to be out there and not expecting to win a tournament,” Seles said. “But I surprised myself and now I feel OK.”
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