Tennis great Graf closes game, set, match on career

After 17 years on tour, 30-year-old retires at top of her game

August 14, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Only a little more than two months ago, during the French Open final, Steffi Graf gave the world a present. She turned back time and demonstrated what she has meant to the game of women's tennis and of what playing the game has meant to her.

She was "Fraulein Forehand" again. And her opponent that day, world No. 1 Martina Hingis and the rest of the world could do little more than watch, as Graf defined what it means to be a champion.

She won that French Open, with a third-set rally to win her first Grand Slam title in three years, and, as it has turned out, the last of her illustrious 17-year career.

Yesterday, Graf followed the unavoidable footprints of time and announced her immediate retirement. By doing so, she joined Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, John Elway and Boris Becker on the list of unparalleled athletes who all returned to the top of their games and brought their careers to an end just before the millennium.

"I'm not having fun anymore," said Graf, as she fought back tears at a news conference near her hometown of Bruehl.

It was perhaps, the only discordant statement of the day. Only a few weeks ago, she was having the time of her life. She even revisited her emotional statements that had followed her French Open victory and runner-up performance at Wimbledon in which she said she would not play those tournaments again. Maybe, she had said, she had been hasty.

But yesterday, there was no second-guessing.

"The weeks following Wimbledon weren't easy for me," said Graf, 30. "I was pulled back and forth, but when I made my decision I didn't think about it one minute afterward."

Graf turned pro at age 13 and over the last 17 years has captured 22 Grand Slam singles titles, 107 tournament wins on the WTA Tour and spent a record 377 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world.

She is one of only five players to complete a Grand Slam, by sweeping the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon in a single year.

She, Margaret Court and Maureen Connolly are the only women to achieve the feat, while on the men's side, Rod Laver did it twice and Don Budge once.

In 1988, Graf swept the majors and then made it a "Golden Slam" by winning the women's gold medal in singles at the Seoul Olympics.

All together, Graf won seven Wimbledon titles, six French Opens, five U.S. Opens and four Australian Opens.

"I have real strong and mixed emotions," said No. 3 Andre Agassi on hearing of Graf's retirement. "It is certainly a loss for tennis because in my opinion she is the best lady that has ever played, [she] dominated on every surface.

"On the other side of it is a sense of happiness for the next chapter in her life -- which I am sure she is looking forward to. We all have to go through it, and to watch somebody who handles herself as professionally as she does go through it first, it's nice I just hope she's resolved to it."

Pete Sampras, whose career at No. 1 has coincided with Graf's, said he has always looked up to her and admires the way she has put her career to rest.

"I can kind of sympathize with what she is going through, because when you are on top, it is not easy to maintain it," Sampras said. "The girls are getting younger and better and she has had an unbelievable career -- obviously, one of the best. She did it with a lot of class. She went out and got the job done and she made her racket do her talking."

For Graf, staying on top was never easy. There were more than 50 documented injuries, including chronic back problems and major knee surgeries.

There were also personal distractions off court, the most disturbing being her father spending 15 months in jail in 1997 and 1998 for evading taxes on her tennis earnings.

On court, her toughest challenge came in the early 1990s when Monica Seles burst on the scene, winning eight Grand Slam titles in 3 1/2 years.

But Seles was stabbed during a 1993 tournament in Hamburg by a man who claimed to be a Graf fan.

The wound and emotional trauma that came with it halted Seles' career for two years and while she was out, Graf rolled up 10 Grand Slam titles.

Graf took women's tennis to another level because of her conditioning.

Her legs, as svelte as any racehorse's, carried her around the court with the grace and speed she needed to play an aggressive game of power forehands and deceptive slice backhands.

But it has always been her single-minded focus that has allowed her to concentrate through all distractions and make her the tenacious champion she is.

And it is also that focus that leaves her open for the only serious criticism of her glorious career.

Before Graf, there had been Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at No. 1. All three championed women's tennis and women's rights. But as Sampras said, Graf spoke only with her racket.

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