WIMBLEDON, England -- Steffi Graf stood alone yesterday on a grass court burned brown, struggling against pressure and fear, but mostly fighting to regain all she once had.
This had nothing to do with history or Wimbledon or her family, nothing to do with this gallant opponent named Gabriela Sabatini. It was personal. Graf against Graf.
"I needed it," she said. "I needed it, just the win again. I needed it for myself."
Graf reached for victory with one last crushing forehand, and then sealed the moment forever with a smile. She beat Sabatini, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6, in a breathless women's final at Wimbledon.
It was Graf's third Wimbledon crown, her 10th Grand Slam title and her first major victory since the 1990 Australian Open. The win marked a reversal of fortune, a return to glory days for a 22-year-old German-born champion who once was expected to gobble up every tennis prize from here to the end of the century.
"People have been writing me off a little bit," Graf said. "I knew I could do it, and I just needed to show it to myself."
Graf's resurrection was witnessed by 13,107 fans crammed into Centre Court on a warm summer's day. Diana, Princess of Wales, and her son Prince William watched from the comfort of the Royal Box. Even Graf's father, Peter, the major source of her personal problems, managed to find the family seats five games into the match.
In the past 17 months, Graf has survived the disclosure of her father's affair with a topless model, a broken right thumb sustained after a hide-and-seek chase on skis with a horde of photographers, sinus surgery, the loss of her No. 1 ranking to Monica Seles and a horrid 1991 French Open semifinal performance against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
"I think I worked through some tough months," Graf said. "I'm doing the right thing by just trying to play my kind of game, trying to do whatever I feel like and just sticking to it."
She was forced to regain a title in a difficult match against her fiercest opponent. Sabatini of Argentina is all legs and hands and heart at the net, a fearless 21-year-old competitor who had beaten Graf five straight times.
"I'm never overconfident, especially against Steffi," said Sabatini. have to play very good tennis to beat her."
They played courageously for 2 hours, 7 minutes. There were 13 service breaks in 33 games, and even Graf said the tennis "was not the highest standard."
But, as theater, it was magnificent.
Graf coming to net to take the first set. Sabatini countering with mad --es and touch volleys in the second set.
Finally, the third set unfolded, a ragged masterpiece of frayed nerves, missed opportunities and mounting drama. Twice Sabatini was serving for the match, and twice Graf came up with all the right shots to break her way back into contention.
"I just told myself to go for the shots," Graf said. "I wasn't playing too well, and I was losing my serves all the time, so I wasn't too confident about it."
But she wouldn't give up, either.
The shots to remember came at 30-all, 6-5 Sabatini. Graf chasing backhand crosscourt and punching a forehand up the line. Sabatini picking it off with a slice backhand down the middle.
The crowd was screaming now, the championship slipping away, and here came Graf from the baseline, catching the ball with the racket and flicking it back with a backhand slice to the open court, Sabatini looking on in disbelief. And there was Graf, waving her left index finger in the air.
"That was joy," she said.
It ended perfectly -- Sabatini trying to save a serve and Graf unloading that forehand, pounding a return and then skipping with her arms at her sides, a smile spreading across her face. She was a picture of relief and triumph.
"It means so much the way I did it, just coming back twice being down a service," she said. "I think that it is special to win that match in this way."
She picked up her championship plate and waved it over her head, working the banks of photographers, giving everyone a chance to watch her smile and feel her joy. The Centre Court crowd had come to cheer for Sabatini, but it was roaring for Graf now. She was alone on the court, a champion reborn.
Later, she talked of the moment, saying that she had proved something to herself. "What was that?" she was asked. She smiled and said, "That I had the guts."
Steffi Graf -- happy at last.