NEW YORK -- Ten years ago, Steffi Graf was 19 and about to play seven wonderful matches at the U.S. Open that would bring her the title and complete a rare Grand Slam sweep -- winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year.
Yesterday, in her first appearance on the 2-year-old Arthur Ashe Stadium Court after a year's absence because of injury, Graf was just trying to make it to the second round. But she still looked like a young thoroughbred, her slim form seeming unfettered by any lingering restraints due to the left-knee surgery she underwent June 10, 1997.
"A lot has happened, and it was nice to be out there again," the No. 8 seed said after her 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Corina Morariu. "I didn't play very well in the second set, but because I won last week, I was able to change my attitude.
"I just sat down after the second set and told myself, 'Well, you know, this is not the way to continue. You have done so well the last few weeks and you worked so hard.' And from then on, I just played better again. I cut down on the mistakes. I think really just sitting there and looking back on last week helped."
Last Sunday, Graf, who is ranked 26th in the world, but seeded eighth here because of her past U.S. Open performances, won the Pilot Pen International. It was her first victory since May 1997 and extended her streak to 13 straight years in which she has won at least one singles title.
And at the '98 Open?
"Who knows?" Graf said. "I am not -- I don't come in here and say, you know, I am going to win; I can win. Who knows? Maybe I can win. It is nothing that I particularly look very hard ahead on. I have never done that."
In other first-round afternoon matches, No. 3 seed Jana Novotna needed a few games to find herself, but came back from a break down to dispatch wild-card Jennifer Capriati, 6-4, 6-3. No. 2 Lindsay Davenport (6-0, 6-2) advanced, as did all the other top women's seeds playing afternoon matches, including No. 12 Mary Pierce (6-1, 4-6, 6-2) and No. 15 Anna Kournikova (6-1, 6-3).
On the men's side, Wayne Ferreira forced last year's Open runner-up, Greg Rusedski, to a fifth set before Rusedski took control, 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 5-7, 7-6 (9-7), 6-4, and No. 12 seed Jonas Bjorkman also needed five sets to oust Cedric Pioline, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 6-2.
Unseeded American Jan-Michael Gambill of Colbert, Wash., advanced in four sets over Karsten Braasch, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 7-5. No. 16 Albert Costa was the lone men's seed to be upset in afternoon play, falling to No. 92-ranked Oliver Gross, who rallied from two sets down for a 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
No. 5 women's seed Venus Williams, who was runner-up to Martina Hingis here a year ago, debuted last night with a decisive 6-1, 6-0 victory over Elena Wagner. In a late match, No. 3 seed and defending men's champion Patrick Rafter was to meet Hicham Arazi at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Graf wasn't eager to leave the court yesterday. After losing her grip on the match in the second set, she said she needed the extra work and was happy to be able to take another step in her comeback.
"To be able to turn it around like that in the third set helped a lot," she said, after raising her first-serve percentage to a match-high 88 percent and limiting her unforced errors to a match-low five in the set.
In her younger days, Graf would show when she was on her game by patting her hip after a winning shot in anticipation of the next point. There was none of that yesterday, but there was an unmistakable spirit and daring.
She was up 3-0 in the third set, and trying to reach another break-point opportunity at 30-30 when she mis-fired on an easy backhand. At that point, you could see her mentally kick herself for letting a point slip by.
And when Morariu finally held for one of just two times in the set, Graf was obviously miffed. She held out her hands, pleading with a linesman to get his calls right and tapped the point where she was sure Morariu's earlier ball had gone long.
Ten years ago, when Graf was going for that slam, it wasn't nearly as much fun as this. Then, she just wanted it over. She was inundated with media questions, with expectations.
"There was such immense pressure on me. I was just basically relieved it was over," said Graf. "I couldn't really enjoy it as much as I wish I would have been able to do. But sitting here now, 10 years later, I do realize what an amazing achievement it was at that time."
Or at any time. Graf is one of just five players to accomplish the Grand Slam feat, and the only one since Margaret Court in 1970.
This season, of course, there will be no season-contained Grand Slam sweep. But there could be a sixth U.S. Open title.
"A couple weeks ago, I didn't feel confident about the way my game was heading," she said. "But I am slowly getting more used to playing better. And feeling -- obviously feeling comfortable physically. I am getting stronger and stronger and that gives me a positive attitude."
118th U.S. Open
When: Through Sept. 13.
Where: National Tennis Center, New York.
TV: 11 a.m., 7: 30 p.m., USA
Today's featured matches:
Day session, begins 11 a.m.
Petr Korda (4) vs. Bernd Karbacher
Monica Seles (6) vs. Joannette Kruger
Marcelo Rios (2) vs. Daniel Vacek
Steffi Graf (8) vs. Marlene Weingartner
Mary Joe Fernandez vs. Alexandra Fusai
Night session, begins 7: 30 p.m.
Martina Hingis (1) vs. Iva Majoli
Pete Sampras (1) vs. Paul Goldstein
Pub Date: 9/02/98