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Will Graf Finally Show Vulnerability? : Women's final: Latest injury gives her a different attitude as she faces Sanchez Vicario today.

July 08, 1995|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WIMBLEDON, England — Grateful is the word that seems most appropriate when describing Steffi Graf's feelings about being in today's Wimbledon singles final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. For that matter, it may also be the proper assessment of the Spaniard's emotional state, she having worked her way into her first Wimbledon final.

It is tempting to say that Graf's fragile back has made her grateful to make the final of any major event, but a review of her career reveals a long list of injuries. Bone spurs on a back joint are only the latest.

The effects of a decade of long hours on hard courts have settled into Graf's body and it is possible that Graf, at 26, can see the end of her career. This makes her relish tennis, especially the Grand Slam events, more than she did as a strong, healthy younger athlete.

It may also explain Graf's unusual display of emotion after she had won the French Open last month. Illness limited her preparation for that clay-court tournament and she surprised herself by weaving through the draw and keeping her body intact.

Graf began Wimbledon with a wrist injury and has said, in increasingly unguarded moments, that she never expected to make it too far.

"I'm happy, really very happy to make the final," she said, sounding as if she meant it.

On the court, Graf is still the imperious and supremely confident champion--she has won here five times. But her injuries have tempered her pride and circumstances have humbled her.

Witness Graf's analysis of today's match against Sanchez Vicario, an opponent she used to take lightly:

"It's going to be such a different match from what was going on out there today," Graf said after Thursday's semifinal victory over Jana Novotna. "But there's one thing--I'm not going to underestimate her at all. She's been coming through to the finals impressively. She played well again today.

"One thing I'm not going to do is feel like I'm the absolute favorite. I don't feel like that at all right now."

Graf's statement aside, Sanchez Vicario is not the favorite, and grass is not her favorite surface. What can be said about Sanchez Vicario is that she is determined and plucky. If she doesn't play well, it won't be for lack of trying.

"It is a dream come true for me," Sanchez Vicario said after beating defending champion Conchita Martinez in the semifinals. "I have wanted to try to play in a Wimbledon final, my first final. I started pretty strong and it feels great. I passed the quarterfinals. That was my goal . . . and now, having a tough match and winning this way, it gives you confidence going into the final.

"I have nothing to lose."

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