Graf, a sportswoman of the first rank

August 14, 1999|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Lately in sports we have been saying far too many goodbyes.

We have been suffering a serious run on retirement. True, a lot of them leave and are never missed. And to some others you say: "Don't let the door strike you in the posterior on your way out."

But then there are the ones whose absence leaves their games, and us, diminished, the ones whose leaving you genuinely mourn: Michael Jordan. John Elway. Wayne Gretzky. Barry Sanders. Genius is always in short supply, anyway.

Now another singular talent has announced her exit.

Stephanie Maria Graf.

She played tennis like a hungry jaguar that had just spied something old and slow limping to the water hole. Some people who know the game will nominate her as the best woman's player ever.

And there are some of us who were struck not just by her incandescent playing and steely will but also by her deportment and demeanor. This was a sportswoman of the first rank, with the grace and graciousness of Chris Evert and the grit and resolve of Martina Navratilova, the neon names she replaced on the marquee.

Catching everyone by surprise, Graf announced yesterday that she was done, that the game that had nurtured and sustained her for so long no longer roused any sort of passion in her. All the candles had gone out.

It is a common lament for women tennis players. They start so early, burnout is inevitable, unavoidable. And Steffi Graf, after all, was 13 when she turned professional. The difference is, unlike most of them, she lasted for an astounding 17 years. Moreover, she didn't just survive, she dominated.

She won 22 Grand Slam singles titles. For perspective, that exceeds the career total of Jack Nicklaus in golf.

She won more than 100 tournaments. She won, in 1988, not only the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but an Olympic gold medal besides.

And if it seemed as if there were a time when she was the best in the world almost forever, well ... for 377 consecutive weeks she was No. 1. That's as close to a dynasty as a one-player team can come.

She had a buggy-whip forehand that knocked the fuzz off the ball, and she had those Secretariat legs that seemed to get her to every shot that was remotely retrievable, and a few that weren't.

But beyond that, what you admired was her humility, her courtesy, her utter lack of arrogance or petulance. She had no equal for a long, long time, but the only way you could find that out was to watch her play. Nothing in her speech indicated she was without peer.

She also withstood personal trauma and persevered. Her father, Peter, was eventually jailed for evading taxes on his daughter's earnings. The trial was splashed over the front pages in Germany. The news all came as news to her, joltingly disruptive.

Can you imagine what is required to battle all the wrenching emotions -- betrayal, confusion, familial obligation and loyalty? It is enough to unseat most of us.

Then there was the incident involving Monica Seles, when a deranged, obsessive soul who was a consumed fan of Graf's rushed out of the stands and stabbed Seles during a tournament, thinking that he could somehow help preserve Graf's status with his blade.

Stalking is frightening enough. This was taking psychological torment to a scary new level.

A decade ago, when Graf was still on the ascendancy, another player from West Germany, Eva Pfaff, recalled: "I play Steffi when she was 12 and so tiny I could hardly see her over the net. She looked like a gymnast. She was running into the corners all the time. I won, very close. Then, yes, of course, she rushed away. Three years later we play again. It was like I was nonexistent on the court."

Hundreds of opponents would feel nonexistent. Graf disposed of them surgically and swiftly. She became the answer to the question: What's the shortest hour in sports? If you risked leaving your seat and then returned to ask what you had missed, the reply was apt to be: The match.

She is 30 now, and she had said this year would begin the winding down. She would make the U.S. Open next month her last major. Now, abruptly, she has decided she is done.

It is not injury or infirmity, she said. And she always has been impeccably conditioned. Nor is it age, 30 leaving her well short of even middle age. Nor is it slippage in her play -- she won the French Open this year and made it to the finals at Wimbledon.

No, it isn't anything she is feeling as much as it is what she isn't feeling. The old zing is gone.

After Wimbledon last month, she said, for the first time in her life the thought of another tennis tournament had no appeal whatsoever. There was a hollowness. So she tried out on herself the notion of immediate retirement, and no part of her rebelled.

She went to a tournament in California, anyway, and sustained an injury -- not career-threatening but something she chose to interpret as an omen. Her body, it seemed to her, was telling her that her earlier decision was the correct one. It is time.

Our loss.

Major winner

Steffi Graf retires at age 30 with 22 Grand Slam titles -- second all time to only Margaret Court's 24:

Australian Open

Champion: 1988, 1989, 1990, 1994

Runner-up: 1993

French Open

Champion: 1987, 1988, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1999

Runner-up: 1989, 1990, 1992

Semifinalist: 1991, 1994

Wimbledon

Champion: 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996

Runner-up: 1987, 1999

Semifinalist: 1990

U.S. Open

Champion: 1988, 1989, 1993, 1995, 1996

Runner-up: 1987, 1990, 1994

Semifinalist: 1985, 1986, 1991

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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