German tennis player
When she attained the number one ranking with the Women's International Tennis Association (WITA) in 1987 and effectively moved past tennis superstars Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova , Steffi Graf never looked back. One of the dominant forces in the game of tennis, Graf possessed a blazing forehand and an unrivaled winning attitude. She dominated women's tennis for over a decade. When she chose to retire in 1999 following a series of injuries that made playing the game more of a burden than an enjoyment, Graf had compiled an incredible record of 902 wins and 115 losses on the professional tour, with an astonishing 107 career singles titles and 22 Grand Slam singles titles (only two shy of the record held by Margaret Court Smith ). Graf also became one of only five players in the history of the game to win tennis' Grand Slam, which she accomplished in 1988 by winning the four major tournaments—the Australian and French Opens, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—all in one calendar year.
Steffi Graf was born Stephanie Maria Graf on June 14, 1969 in Mannheim, West Germany, to Peter and Heidi Graf. Steffi grew up in Brühl, a small West German town, and with parents who were tennis players, it was inevitable that before long Steffi would have a racquet in her hands. Her father was a nationally-ranked player in Germany when Graf was little, operating a tennis facility and gaving lessons when he was not playing. Thus, when his three-year old daughter expressed an interest in the game, Peter did not pay much attention to her. But eventually she wore him down and he sawed off an old racquet and let her play with it, and, according to the 1987 edition of Contemporary Newsmakers, Graf had soon "broken all the lamps in the house."
Graf learned to play tennis in the family's basement on a makeshift court concocted from two chairs and some string to serve as a net. When she was five, her father realized his little girl was not going to give up and he began coaching her. "For a long time, I believed that Steffi only wanted to play because she loved me and
wanted to be with me," he told Tennis magazine. "But the evidence of her talent became very strong… She was always watching the ball until it was not in play anymore."
Peter Graf helped turn his daughter into one of the toughest junior tennis players in Germany. He soon quit his other jobs and devoted his life to coaching her. He had good reason to think he was making a wise choice, because in little more than a year after he had started working with her, Graf had won her first tournament (she was six). By the time she was 13, she had won the German junior championship.
Growing up, Graf was not one to be consumed by leisure activities. Graf's parents withdrew her from the eighth grade in 1982, when she was 13, after she became the second-youngest player in the history of tennis to achieve an international ranking (no. 214 in WITA rankings). She began competing in more tournaments and then, in 1984, traveled to Los Angeles to compete in the Summer Olympics. She walked away from that competition with the gold.
The Young Professional
Graf's first year as a professional was tough. She did not win any tournaments, though she did make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open, losing to Martina Navratilova. But then in 1986 she won 24 straight matches, quickly moving up to the number three ranking in the world.
But Graf was not satisfied. She wanted a Grand Slam, and therefore began a rigorous training program that included running, weightlifting, jumping rope, and more and more tennis. She made her hard work pay off, and in 1987 won the French open against Navratilova (6-4, 4-6, 8-6). At that time, in French Open history, she was the youngest winner ever, and with her victory moved her ranking up to number two in the world.
Soon she moved up to number one, following her many other victories that year. By the season's end, Graf had lost only two of seventy-two matches, winning an amazing 11 of the 13 tournaments she played in.
The Big Year
Winning all four Grand Slam events in one year (which is also called winning the Grand Slam) is an amazing feat in tennis. The difficulty of winning the Grand Slam is legend. Graf achieved this feat in 1988, becoming only the third woman ever to complete the honor. She started her run with a victory over Evert in the Australian Open (6-1, 7-6), and then beat Natalia Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in the finals of the French Open. This was the first time that a player had completely shut out an opponent in a Grand Slam final. In fact, Graf lost only 20 games throughout the tournament, and, at its conclusion, actually apologized to the crowd for winning so easily.
The next tournament in Graf's Grand Slam tour was Wimbledon, where she looked to a showdown with Navratilova, who had won the previous eight Wimbledon championships. The grass at Wimbledon was Navratilova's preferred surface, and many people, in spite of Graf's amazing run, were expecting Navratilova to come out on top.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1986||Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Newcomer of the Year|
|1986||West Germany's Sportswoman of the Year|
|1987-88||International Tennis Federation's Player of the Year|
|1987-90, 1993-95||WTA Player of the Year|
|1989||Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year|
|1994, 1996-97||Wins ESPY for Outstanding Women's Tennis Performer of the Year|
|1995-96||Tennis magazine's Player of the Year|
|1998||Voted WTA "Most Interesting Player of the Year"|
|1999||Receives Prince of Asturias Award (one of most important awards from Spain)|
|1999||Receives German Television Award|
|1999||Wins "Athlete of the Century" honors in Germany|
|1999||Awarded "Female Sports Award of Past Decade" at the ESPYs|
|1999||Awarded Olympic Medal of Honor|
|2002||Receives Medal of Honor, decorated by Prime Minister of Federal German State Baden-Wuerhemborg, in Stuttgart, Germany When Graf retired she had 902 wins, 115 losses, and 107 career singles titles. She amassed 22 Grand Slam singles titles|
And indeed, it looked that way at first, as Graf lost the first set 7-5. But she persevered and ended up winning 12 of the last 13 games of the match, defeating Navratilova in the final two sets, 6-2, 6-1. It was almost anti-climactic later that season when she won her fourth Grand Slam victory in the U.S. Open, and then followed that phenomenal feat with a second gold medal only days later at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Dominant Throughout the 90s
On the court, Graf compiled Grand Slam title after Grand Slam title. In between the major championships she amassed singles tournament victories as if they were just another stop on her way to becoming one of the greatest tennis players in history. In 1991, however, she fell to number two in the world rankings after an amazing 188 weeks at the top. She lost her ranking to Monica Seles , which meant more to her than having the record stopped. She did not like losing, and she was frustrated at having not won a Grand Slam event in over a year and a half.
Graf soon ended her dry spell with a 1991 Wimbledon victory, defeating Gabriela Sabatini 6-4, 3-6, 8-6. In 1992, Graf lost to Seles in the finals of the French Open, but regained her composure and defeated Seles handily at Wimbledon (6-2, 6-1).
Seles again defeated Graf in the finals of the 1993 Australian Open, and it appeared that Graf would remain at number two for a while. Then, in a bizarre and tragic occurrence, Seles, seated courtside at a German tennis match, was stabbed in the back. The authorities learned that the perpetrator was one of Graf's fans, and he claimed later that he had done so in order to restore Graf to her number one ranking.
The news of Seles's attack shocked Graf, as well as the tennis world. Graf was the first person to see Seles in the hospital. Seles remained away from tennis for over two years, and—though it was an unfortunate incident that put her back on top—Graf in fact did regain the number one ranking by dominating the last half of 1993, winning the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. But she was distraught over Seles's stabbing. Graf went on in 1994 to win the Australian open, and then—suffering from allergies—lost a major upset to Mary Pierce in the semifinals of the French Open.
|1969||Born June 14 in Mannheim, West Germany, to Peter and Heidi Graf|
|1972||At age of three gets out father's tennis racquets and wants to learn game|
|1974||Convinces her father to take her interest in tennis seriously|
|1975||Wins her first junior tournament (she's six years old)|
|1979||Trains under Boris Breskvar, German Tennis Federation Coach|
|1982||Quits school and becomes second youngest player to receive an international ranking|
|1982||Wins German Junior 18s Championship and European Junior 18s Championship|
|1982||Turns professional on October 18|
|1983||Playing in qualifying rounds of French open at age 13, she is mistaken for a ballgirl|
|1984||Wins Gold at 1984 Summer Olympic Games|
|1985||Breaks into the top ten of WTA Tour Rankings for the first time|
|1986||Wins her first title, defeating Chris Evert at the Family Circle Cup|
|1986||Wins U.S. Clay Court Championship; begins first of three consecutive German Open victories|
|1987||Wins French Open, her first Grand Slam title event (defeats Martina Navratilova)|
|1987||On August 17 becomes the #1 player in the world. Holds spot for 186 weeks until October 3, 1991|
|1988||Completes Grand Slam (only third woman in history to do so)|
|1988||Wins second Olympic Gold Medal|
|1989||Plays her first match against Monica Seles in semis of French Open|
|1989||Wins Wimbledon, Australian Open and U.S. Open|
|1989||Finishes year with 14 titles and an 86-2 record|
|1990||Wins Australian Open|
|1990||Wins first tournament ever played in Leipzig and donates her prize money ($70,000) to aid tennis development in East Germany; in October the Steffi Graf Youth Tennis Center is founded in Leipzig|
|1991||Gives up no. 1 ranking to Monica Seles, and, following 1990, a mediocre year, considers quitting tennis|
|1993||Wins French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open|
|1993||A "fan" of Graf's stabs Monica Seles at a tournament in Hambourg. The incident greatly upsets Graf|
|1994||Wins Australian Open|
|1994||Ranking hits 441.1746, the highest ranking average ever achieved by a player|
|1995||Wins French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open|
|1995||Wins her 750th match on July 6th at the Wimbledon semi-finals|
|1996||Wins French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, her 20th and 21st Grand Slam titles|
|1996||Becomes the player, male or female, to be ranked no. 1 in the world the longest (total of 332 weeks over 6 years)|
|1997||Suffers injury to the patella tendon in her knee in February; undergoes operation in June|
|1998||Becomes highest-grossing female athlete ever, surpassing Navratilova|
|1998||Drops from singles rankings because she had not played the required number of tournaments|
|1999||Wins French Open|
|1999||Wins her 900th career match; on August 13 she announces her retirement from Tennis|
|2001||Marries Andre Agassi on October 22; gives birth to Jaden Gil Agassi a few days later|
The Injuries Begin, Slowly
As the 1994 season wound down, Graf found injuries to her back and leg slowing her down, and after defeats in several major tournaments, decided to take some time off, losing her number one ranking to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario . But she returned to form in 1995, winning the Lipton Championships, then winning the French Open against Sanchez Vicario 7-5, 4-6, 6-0 (her twenty-fifth win in a row). She took another win over Sanchez Vicario at Wimbledon in 1995, in a match that saw a grueling 20-minute, 32-point game, after which Graf finally broke serve and won four quick points.
Drama Off Court
For years Graf remained rather reclusive and hard to talk to on the pro tour. Tennis had always been her focus; everything else came second. This caused problems with some critics and fans, who wanted her to be more accessible. As she matured, she became more open to interviews and to her public, but as she grew into a notable figure on the court, the soap opera that surrounded her professional career—in the form of her father, Peter Graf—began to unfold.
Graf had been given the means by which to become a phenomenal tennis player—tennis-loving parents, a father who took her on as a coach and who supported her no matter what—but with these gifts came burdens, and Peter Graf had no doubt caused his daughter many headaches. During her career, Peter Graf was cited many times for illegal coaching, which according to Contemporary Newsmakers, ranged from "talking to Steffi in German during the matches" to "using hand signals." In order to avoid getting caught, the elder Graf moved around in the crowd so that the officials could not spot him. At certain times, his actions caused Graf to be assessed penalty points for being coached while on the court, as television replays showed him clearly disobeying the rules.
Peter Graf also brought intense pressure on his daughter when he became, as Tennis magazine reporter Cindy Shmerler writes, "a walking tabloid headline." Indeed, in the nineties he was called out because of an extramarital affair with a German model. Then he had trouble dealing with his alcoholism. And then, in what became a major media circus, Peter Graf's income tax evasion, and his failure to pay taxes on millions of his daughter's earnings, brought her private life under intense scrutiny.
By the end of 1995, however, Graf pushed the media hype aside, winning the U.S. Open, and then going on to win Wimbledon the next season for her twentieth Grand Slam title. Injuries to her back and left knee soon forced her to take more unwanted time off. In a span of only a few years, the injuries mounted. She was hampered by knee surgery (causing her to miss much of 1997), and then an ankle injury in 1998 dropped her to number 9 in the world rankings.
In her last year on tour, however, Graf came back with a great victory, perhaps her sweetest, when she defeated Martina Hingis in the French Open. Hingis had been claiming that Graf was no longer a viable threat in the Grand Slams.
Graf's dominance might be considered one of her many contributions to tennis. She unseated some of the best players, and then consistently returned to top form throughout her professional career, scaring opponents with her forehand storke. "[It] puts fear in everybody," tennis professional Zina Garrison said of her forehand in Sports Illustrated. Tennis commentator Bud Collins even went so far as to dub her "Fraulein Forehand." When she retired following a series of injuries that made playing the game more burden than fun, Graf compiled an incredible record of 902 wins and 115 losses on the professional tour, with astonishing 107 career singles titles and 22 Grand Slam singles titles. She is one of only five players in the history of the game to win tennis' Grand Slam.
The Trials of Steffi Graf
Their bond was unbreakable, and as Steffi became a force in tennis, Peter was right beside her—controlling her life and business off the court while she controlled the rhythms on it. He picked and fired her coaches, mapped her schedule, traveled with her…. By the time Steffi, at 17, won her first Grand Slam event, beating Martina Navratilova in the French Open final in 1987, she was well on her way to her first million-dollar year in earnings. Together she and Peter were on an inexorable climb to the tennis summit. A perfectionist driven by her father and by her own relentless will, Steffi would don her stoical mask and use her cannon of a forehand, the most powerful weapon in the women's game, to overwhelm her opponents. As true as that forehand was, the mask was no less a lie. Highly emotional and sensitive, with a temperament more suited to a poet than to a professional athlete, Steffi had a poignant sadness about her. There were days when defeat would plunge her into despair. "She never appreciated a win as much as she was devastated by a loss," says Jim Fuhse, the WTA's publicity director and a longtime friend of Steffi's.
Source: Nack, William. Sports Illustrated 21 (November 18, 1996): 74.
Where Is She Now?
When Steffi Graf retired from tennis in 1999, she told Tennis magazine that "I feel I have nothing left to accomplish…. I'm not having fun anymore. After Wimbledon, for the first time in my career, I didn't feel like going to a tournament." In spite of her private past, Graf has now become more outspoken and is involved with marketing her own line of handbags in her native Germany, as well as represeting a mobile phone company. She also does work with the World Wildlife Foundation.
After spending much of the 1990s in a relationship with race car driver Michael Bartels, Graf eventually found that she had more in common with tennis superstar Andre Agassi, whom she married in 2001. Together they have many homes, but prefer to spend much of their time in Las Vegas. Steffi gave birth to their first son, Jaden Gil Agassi, in October of 2001.
Address: c/o Stefanie Graf Marketing, GmbH & Co.KG, Mallaustrasse 75, 68215 Mannheim, Germany; email: [email protected]
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Sketch by Eric Lagergren