April 08, 1996
April 08, 1996

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April 8, 1996

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THERE'S A new natural law in the universe, as undeniable as
gravity: Steffi Graf cannot be stopped. Life has done everything
to put her through hell--thrown her father in jail, put her
through debilitating surgeries, brought back Monica Seles--but
she has beaten all of it back like so many small balls. She has
reached a point defying all athletic logic. Players now fear
taking a lead over her because that just means, as Lindsay
Davenport says, "Oh, no, you've made her mad." Last Thursday in
Key Biscayne, Fla., as the announcer boomed out Graf's
monotonously brilliant record over stadium court at the Lipton
Championships, coach Marcel Freeman paused on a nearby practice
court, looked at his pupil, Chanda Rubin, and said in
exasperation, "Listen to that. She's lost, like, two matches in
seven years. You've got to take her out--just on general

This is an article from the April 8, 1996 issue Original Layout

Freeman wasn't the only one wishing for that result. Women's
tennis has been so afflicted by galloping melodrama the past few
years, so consumed by comebacks and flameouts, that Rubin's
recent blossoming has been welcomed with a fervor usually
reserved for the newest Nike ad. Seles aside, Rubin was, for
tennis junkies, the talk of the 1996 Australian Open, where her
huge forehand, her three-set loss to Seles in the semis and her
penchant for winning marathon matches set the hype machine
running at a low hum. It didn't hurt, either, that Rubin
possesses that rare tennis triple: She is black, American and
extraordinarily self-assured. "I can play with anybody," Rubin
says. "Including her."

Not yet. Since fighting off three match points in a breakthrough
win over Jana Novotna in the third round of last year's French
Open, the 20-year-old Rubin has shown she can handle the big
names on tour--except Graf, to whom she has lost all four times
they have played. In last Saturday's final, the biggest of
Rubin's career, she couldn't fathom Graf's slice backhand,
blasted a slew of unforced errors and wilted in the heat 6-1,
6-3. Rubin is now ranked a career-high No. 7 in the world, but
Graf showed her the sizable gap that remains between there and
the top. "With someone like Arantxa [Sanchez Vicario] or Monica,
there's just not quite the same oppressiveness as Graf," Rubin

Oppressive might be the word to describe the burdens heaped on
Graf last year. She trudged through the summer and fall carrying
a weight so heavy it seemed to be crushing her. While she was
off winning the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the
German government investigated and then arrested her father,
Peter, who had managed her finances throughout her career, for
failing to pay millions in income taxes. The lasting image of
her triumphant U.S. Open run was not of her on the court after
her classic win in the final over Seles but of her frantic,
sobbing race out of the interview room.

But at Lipton, Graf steamrollered to her second straight
tournament victory of the year with a visible joy. She is now,
oddly enough, playing the happiest tennis of her life.

"I appreciate tennis [now] more than any other time," Graf says.
"I feel a lot looser because I'm here. Nothing else touches me
right now--no phone calls, no faxes. I really appreciate these
past few weeks because I know how it was at home."

In December, Graf went back to Germany to take control of her
finances for the first time. In a strange twist, she met with
tennis impresario Ion Tiriac, who--as a result of a disagreement
with Peter over Steffi's appearance fee for a tournament Tiriac
runs in Essen, Germany--had provided the information that
prompted the government probe of Graf's finances. Although Graf
remains a client of Advantage International, she does not deny
she is considering a change, and she could well end up being
managed by Tiriac. Graf admits she doesn't know whom to trust.

"I was lucky to have my father to keep me away from all that,
honestly," Graf says. She never knew how much of a strain it
would be to understand her own affairs. "I tried too hard. I was
hoping that the more energy I put into it, the better things
would go. But then you realize: It doesn't change anything. At
the end of my stay I couldn't sleep anymore, I was worn down so

Tennis freed her. When Graf returned to her home in Boca Raton,
Fla., in February, she couldn't wait to hit the court. "If you
have to deal with these things, you realize what a great life
you have on tour, you know how great it is just to focus on
tennis," Graf says. "That's something I've not treasured as much
as I do now."

She's not the only one. The 1996 Lipton also proved a milestone
for wunderkind-turned-cautionary-tale Jennifer Capriati, who
bulled her way into the fourth round in the best performance of
her incipient comeback, and also left behind her muddled teenage
years, turning 20 last Friday. Lipton marked Capriati's first
appearance in South Florida since her arrest for marijuana
possession in a Coral Gables motel room two years ago, and she
showed up looking fit and seemingly prepared to stick with the
sport. "I never thought I was just completely done with tennis,"
Capriati says. "I just knew that it was inside me and it is what
I do best."

Graf had a hand in that realization during the past few
months--hitting with Capriati, inviting her over for a barbecue,
gently encouraging her return. "She's so natural, so young, and
she's a little bit naive--like I see in me a little bit," Graf
says. "And I know she is capable of great things. Tennis will
help her. Tennis teaches you so much. It does prepare you for

But it also can have a shattering impact off the court, as
Capriati knows all too well. She has lost two years of what was
once a superstar career, and she presented a warily hopeful face
at Lipton. During that time her parents, Stefano and Denise,
divorced. They were both on hand, and cordial, during Jennifer's
postmatch gatherings, but the whole family now bears the aura of
survivors. "I'm very grateful," Denise says. "Just to see her
content, happy inside, is the most important thing."

Rubin, only 40 days older than Capriati, seems to have risen in
the ranks with that inner contentment intact. She was raised in
a household in Lafayette, La., that stressed education as much
as tennis--her mother is a retired schoolteacher, her father a
district judge--and even now her parents do not travel regularly
to her tournaments. The family isn't defined by the game; four
years ago, during her father's election campaign, Chanda, her
brother and her sister spent a month going door-to-door,
drumming up votes. After this year's U.S. Open she'll campaign
again, for her father's reelection. "I've learned so much from
her," says Freeman, 36, who played the men's tour for seven
years. "She's so poised, so grounded, more than most people my
age, that I almost resent her for it."

The ground under Graf is shakier. She plans to return to Germany
for a visit sometime in the next week, and those close to her
have said she is not expected to be a target of the ongoing
financial investigation. "I'm not hesitant to go back," she
says. "After having had a great couple of weeks away, I have the
right attitude to approach it now." Her father has been in jail
for eight months, during which time Graf has been allowed to see
him only occasionally, with a guard standing by. Graf has little
hope that he will be released soon. "No," she says. "It doesn't
look like it." She has no time, no use, for deciding whom to
blame for her father's plight. "I can't judge it," Graf says. "I
don't want to judge it. I don't want to judge it, because it is
too difficult." Better to concentrate on her forehand, her
slice, her serve--so easy to understand and as dependable as

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RON ANGLE By focusing on her tennis, Graf has been able to block out the stinging realities of the rest of her life. [Steffi Graf]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RON ANGLE The 20-year-old Rubin, a rising No. 7 on the tour, is convinced of one thing: "I can play with anybody." [Chanda Rubin]