Within the next several years it's quite possible that Boris Becker will become the best tennis player in the world. He'd better hurry, though, because another West German just might achieve a No. 1 ranking before he does. Steffi Graf, a 16-year-old from Br"uhl who has won her last three tournaments and raised her 1986 record to 27-3, is moving up fast in the women's game, where only Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd are ahead of her now. ``I always mention Steffi's name first when I talk about the up-and-coming girls on the tour,'' says Evert Lloyd. ``Steffi has a monster forehand and, in terms of pace, it's the best in women's tennis.''
Graf, who exudes natural athleticism, used this shot last month to record her first victory over Chris in seven matches. This triumph came in the final of the Family Circle Cup, an event Evert Lloyd had monopolized with eight championships and a 46-1 record since 1974.
Steffi, a 5 ft. 8 in., 116-pounder, went on to win the Sunkist/WTA Championships two weeks ago, beating countrywoman Claudia Kohde Kilsch 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 in the final, and last weekend secured her third straight title by beating Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, the tour's ``1985 Newcomer of the Year,'' 2-6, 7-6, 6-4 in the US Open Clay Courts championship in Indianapolis. Many observers believe the Graf-Sabatini rivalry will eventually replace Chris-versus-Martina as the main attraction in women's tennis. Steffi has won all three times she's faced Sabatini, but ``Gaby'' has taken her to three sets each time. The two teamed to win the doubles crown at Indianapolis.
Graf burst onto the international scene by winning a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where, at 15, she was the youngest athlete in this demonstration sport. Her rise has been a bit eclipsed in the last year by the ``Beckermania'' that was triggered when Boris prevailed at Wimbledon at age 17.
She played a memorable match a few months later, however, at the US Open, upsetting Pam Shriver to gain the semifinals in a duel that lasted 2 hours, 46 minutes and was the first women's match during the Open's tie-break era to go the maximum 39 games. Steffi won 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 to make her furthest advance in a Grand Slam event. Navratilova, who owns a 3-0 mark over Graf, beat her in the semis.
Steffi hasn't always seemed comfortable in the limelight. Last fall tour officials encouraged her and her father-coach, Peter, to project a more positive image to the press and public, which they've done.
Steffi has avoided overscheduling, playing in fewer tournaments last year (14) than any other Top 10 player. She's currently preparing to play in the May 12-19 German Open, in hopes of extending her 15-match winning streak and improving on last year's runner-up finish to Evert Lloyd.