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The German Giant
Graf, queen of the lawn
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"Steffi Graf's the best all-around player. Martina won more on fast courts and I won more on slow courts, but Steffi came along and won more titles on both surfaces,"says Chris Evert on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
The beginning came neatly wrapped in irony, one teen tennis queen across the court from a future one. In 1982, Steffi Graf, a 13-year-old German and the youngest phenom to turn professional, played her first match against Tracy Austin, a 19-year-old American who had won the U.S. Open three years earlier.
After winning 6-4, 6-0 in Filderstadt, Germany, Austin downplayed Graf's skills by saying there were "hundreds" like Graf back in the U.S., girls with game. The analysis turned into a monstrous mis-hit, for Graf wasn't like the other kids, before or after her, whether they were named Austin or Jaeger, Sabatini or Seles, Capriati or Hingis.
Some started on the women's tour with more hype or endorsements than Graf. Some won big tournaments more quickly. None would match her achievements.
In 1988, at 19, Graf won the Grand Slam. A year later, after beating Martina Navratilova for her second Wimbledon singles title, an awed Navratilova said, "I don't know how much more she can improve."
Graf generated passion for tennis from the time she picked up a wooden racket at age three. As a youngster, she won almost solely with her forehand, which Chris Evert called "the best in women's tennis." Later, Graf developed a wicked sliced backhand and built her serve up to 105 mph.
She was so fast and athletic, tracking balls that seemed unplayable, that people wondered if she might have succeeded as a sprinter as well. As a pro, Graf overcame multiple injuries, staying at No. 1 longer than anyone.
She won her first Grand Slam tournament in 1987, the French Open, and became the Women's Tennis Association's No. 1 player that August, a ranking she kept for a record 186 consecutive weeks. When she retired in 1999, she had won 22 majors, second only to Margaret Court's 24. She had won Wimbledon seven times and her 107 tournament victories placed her third behind Navratilova (167) and Evert (154). She spent a record 377 weeks at No. 1.
Soon after retiring she made headlines off the court for dating Andre Agassi. They married in October 2001 and she gave birth to son Jaden four days later. They had a girl, Jaz, in October 2003.
Stefanie Maria Graf was born June on 14, 1969 in Mannheim, West Germany, and in 1978 the family moved to nearby Bruehl. Her father Peter, a car and insurance salesman, was an aspiring tennis coach who began teaching her to swing a racket in the family's living room. She was on a court at four, in her first tournament at five and taking lessons at six.
Graf grew in love with the sport, often having to be coaxed off the practice court. Soon, she competed against older players, spent time at a training center and won junior tournaments with regularity. She turned pro at 13 years, four months, and was ranked 124th as she began her first season in 1983. She climbed to No. 98 by season's end, to 22 the next year and No. 6 in 1985, all without winning any singles titles.
Peter Graf closely controlled her schedule, limiting her play so that she wouldn't burn out like many other youngsters. In 1985, for instance, she played 10 events leading up to the U.S. Open; Gabriela Sabatini, a year younger at 15, played 21.
With her father reining in her personal life, Graf often declined social invitations and made few friends on tour. She had no time for boyfriends. "I think only of tennis, tennis, tennis," she said.
Whether working with her father or coach Pavel Slozil, Graf practiced for as much as four hours a day, sometimes heading straight to the courts from the airport. This narrow focus led to an image of aloofness - some players thought she was arrogant - but kept Graf pointed toward stardom.
She won eight tournaments in 1986, a prelude to her 75-2 season the next year that included a 6-4, 4-6, 8-6 victory over Navratilova in the French Open final. "Once I had an aura of invincibility," Navratilova said. "Chris had it for a while. Steffi has it now."
She had it all in 1988, a "Golden" Grand Slam. Graf won all four Grand Slam events, joining Maureen Connolly (1953) and Margaret Court (1970) as the only women to accomplish this feat. Then she captured the first Olympic tennis gold medal, beating Sabatini in the final in Seoul, South Korea.
Utilizing her peerless forehand, a stroke usually strong enough to keep her on the baseline, Graf beat Evert 6-1, 7-6 in the Australian Open final. In Paris, she took 32 minutes to embarrass Natalia Zvereva in the French final 6-0, 6-0. Next on the Slam road was the grass at Wimbledon, where Graf had struggled in her earlier years and where Navratilova had won six straight titles. This time, Graf won 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, her opponent admitting, "I didn't succumb to any pressure. I succumbed to a better player."
Graf completed the Slam by beating Sabatini 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in an undistinguished U.S. Open final. She felt mostly relief, saying, "There's nothing else that people can tell me I have to do."
Despite later injuries - chiefly foot and knee surgeries and back problems - Graf found more to accomplish. She actually had thoughts of going unbeaten in 1989 - and almost did so. A three-set loss to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the French Open final cost her a successive Slam, but Graf finished with 14 titles and a career-best 86-2 record.
After beating Navratilova again for the Wimbledon crown, Graf said, "There were times last year I didn't know how much I was winning and how tough it was. When you lose a couple of times, it makes you realize how hard winning is."
Her game and perspective maturing, Graf retained her top ranking until March 1991 when Monica Seles overtook her. Graf twice regained the No. 1 ranking that year, but only briefly.
Seles became the biggest power in women's tennis. Then on April 30, 1993, in Hamburg, Germany, she was stabbed in the back by a spectator during a change-over. Sidelined for 27 months, Seles never regained her previous skills. The attacker was German and a Graf fan, a revelation that shook Steffi, even if it didn't slow her game.
The 1990s tested Graf's resolve in other ways. In 1990, her father was the subject of a paternity suit brought by a former Playboy model, and the German press rode the scandal hard. Tests proved Peter wasn't the baby's father.
And in 1995, her father, who served as Steffi's financial manager, was jailed in Germany for income tax evasion. Convicted and sentenced to 45 months, he was released after serving 25. Prosecutors dropped their case against Steffi in 1997 when she agreed to pay 1.3 million marks ($775,000) to the government and an unspecified charity.
From 1990-92, Graf won one Slam title each year. With Seles out, she regained her No. 1 ranking in 1993 when she won three majors. She retained the top spot for most of four years, a time when she began slimming her schedule. She went 76-6 in 1993, 58-6 the following year and 47-2 the next.
Only a first-round upset to Lori McNeil in 1994 spoiled her success at Wimbledon, where she won five of six years, the last in 1996.
Injuries finally broke Graf in 1997. She hurt her knee in Japan and twice had surgery. Out for months, she lost the No. 1 ranking to Martina Hingis in March and fell to No. 28 at the end of the year.
Graf had one last hurrah, upsetting Hingis at the 1999 French Open final in June. She retired two months later. She was 30. Five years later, Graf was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
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