Remembering What Made Steffi Graf a Tennis Legend

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJuly 13, 2016

German tennis player Steffi Graf hits a backhand during her match against Sandra Nacuk of Yugoslavia at the WTA German Open tennis tournament in Berlin on Tuesday, May 11, 1999. Graf won the match   2-6, 6-3 and 6-4. (AP Photo/Christof Stache)
CHRISTOF STACHE/Associated Press

Steffi Graf will always be a legendary standard for women’s tennis. To many fans and observers who watched the entirety of her career, she is the greatest player of all time with her record-setting 22 major titles for the Open era.

At the least, Graf is a mythical figure to younger people and those who discovered tennis in the 21st century. She is the German superstar that Serena Williams tied with her own 22nd major in winning Wimbledon 2016.

Part of the joy in Williams' championships is to remember Graf’s greatness as a player, her graceful personality and what she meant to women’s tennis during her glory years.


The Image of Tennis Perfection

Bob Martin/Getty Images

Tennis fans around the world could see that 18-year-old Graf was the real deal when she defeated Martina Navratilova in the 1987 French Open final.

She acknowledged in Peter Bodo's profile for Tennis Magazine that she was shy but liked to laugh. The young Graf had frizzy hair and simple Adidas whites, but she played a futuristic brand of tennis that was already tearing through the top players in the world.

Graf was a unique tennis athlete, the first and last of her kind. Standing at 5’10”, she was slender but powerful. Best of all for her tennis, she had strong legs and gazelle-like footwork that retrieved tough balls and allowed her to blast her forehand. In many respects, she had the kind of stylistic footwork and grace seen in men’s superstar Roger Federer.

It was remarkable to watch her glide to the ad corner to hit her trademark inside-out forehand with straight posture and identical form. American TV watchers could remember the late Bud Collins enthusiastically calling her "Fraulein Forehand." She shifted tennis from the softer groundstrokes of Chris Evert to inspiring future big-hitting stars like Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters.

Like her home country’s reputation for efficiency, Graf was a Mercedes; reliable, swift and enviable. As her career progressed into stardom, she remained a simple yet elegant model of tennis beauty. Her sense for fashion was tasteful and conservative, yet sleek and athletic. She endorsed products during a time that did not promote women tennis players nearly to the extent that has been commonplace for lesser stars in the modern era.

26 May-8 Jun 1997:  Steffi Graf of Germany plays a backhand return during the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris. \ Mandatory Credit: Gary M. Prior/Allsport
Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Graf used precise routines, for instance, refusing to pocket a second tennis ball when she delivered her first serve. When she needed that second serve, she waited for a ball kid to bounce her the next one. Then her high serving toss floated in the air as both arms and head reached skyward as if communicating with her fellow tennis gods.

She used bulkier graphite racket frames that had less surface area and were without today’s powerful strings, yet she consistently hit her serve over 100 mph, while following it up with her uber ground game. There's no question her game would be enhanced with today's technology, fitness and opportunities.

Her backhand was a technical marvel. She could rip one-handed topspin if she wanted, but her rallies favored an extraordinary slice backhand that skidded, cut or leaped depending on what was needed. It was all designed to patiently get one weak reply that was punished by her fabled forehand.

Above all, she had absolute focus, quiet concentration and total professionalism. She did not try to pump herself up or distract opponents with grunting, fist pumping or shouting after winning important points. It was rare to see her question a line call, and when she did, it was usually no more than to politely ask for affirmation before going back to work. Tennis that needed no arrogance.

When Graf lost big matches (including nine major finals), she did it with class, no excuses or tantrums. There was no emotional brooding, long breaks or soul searching. She practiced, played and looked to win the next time out.


Rising Above the Rest

MALCOLM CLARKE/Associated Press

Graf lost the 1987 Wimbledon and U.S. Open tournaments to the serve-and-volley brilliance of seasoned legend Navratilova.

Undoubtedly, it fueled her next leap to 1988 stardom, when she swept the only calendar Grand Slam of the Open era that included hard courts, clay and grass. She added the Olympic gold medal for good measure, and that achievement rests as the greatest year in women’s tennis. She was still a teenager.

There would only be one real rival after Navratilova and other aging stars faded into retirement. Seles, four years her junior, was a lefty, seemingly built to counter Graf’s formulaic brilliance. In 1990, Seles stopped Graf’s 66-match winning streak and defeated her in the French Open final.

The Graf-Seles rivalry saw the younger player take the upper hand from 1991-92, when she won back-to-back major titles in Australia, France and New York. Through the 1993 Australian Open, Seles won seven majors in eight appearances, using her blistering flat groundstrokes and angles for one of the great runs of dominance in tennis history.

Tragically, Seles was stabbed by a deranged German fan during a match in early 1993, because the fan wanted Graf to regain her world No. 1 ranking. Seles would never be the same player after returning over two years later, and even Graf’s legacy would be questioned.

Would Graf have immediately won four straight majors had Seles played the next year? Would the German have won 10 majors in four years (1993-96) even while twice missing the Australian Open?

Aug-Sep 1996:  Steffi Graf of Germany holds the trophy aloft after her victory in the Womens Singles Final match during the US Open Tournament played at Flushing Meadow in New York, USA. \ Mandatory Credit: Shaun  Botterill/Allsport
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Meanwhile other would-be rivals could not match Graf’s excellence. Young Capriati, like so many Gen X athletes, ran into problems and burned out for most of the 1990s before her glorious career finish, yes, after Graf had retired.

Big-hitting Mary Pierce did not have Graf’s nimble footwork or championship mettle.

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, for all of her grit and hustle, lacked the strength and force of Graf’s offensive exploits.

Even Swiss Miss Martina Hingis, who seemed to be Graf’s heir apparent in 1997, could not come close to filling the German’s shoes. Hingis was a magician with her shots, but she didn’t have Graf’s powerful perfection and composure.

Graf became racked with knee and back injuries between 1997 and 1999 when she was 28 years old but with a lot of tennis mileage. She missed out nearly one year while Hingis won four of her five career Slams.

When Graf made her way back to the 1999 French Open final, she defeated Hingis, who had infamously declared months earlier: “Steffi [Graf] had some results in the past, but it’s a faster, more athletic game now...She is old now. Her time has passed.”

Graf not only won the match by fighting back to win the final two sets, but Hingis had angrily thrown a tantrum at the chair umpire, and she unraveled thereafter.

That French Open win was major No. 22.

A month later, Graf fell in the Wimbledon final to Lindsay Davenport, and in August she retired. Injuries, burnout and a perfectionist’s pride were too much to overcome at the time, and she had already been building a new relationship and life with rejuvenated tennis star Andre Agassi.

Nobody would fill Graf's shoes in the years that followed, and when she occasionally played exhibition matches, she towered over everyone with her tennis presence. It almost seemed as if she could come back to the WTA Tour to challenge Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters or the Williams sisters.

As for Graf, she was content that she had exhausted all of her efforts while she played, according to her comments four years ago to the Courier-Mail's's Valkerie Baynes (h/t the Herald Sun):

When I look back, I feel that I gave everything to the sport. I dedicated basically my life to it during that period.

I was fortunate to have the achievements that I've had. Not everybody who gives everything and pushes themselves has that result. I'm not going to ask for anything else. I'm sitting here very fortunate.

Graf was the textbook model of tennis, and then the mold was broken.

Seventeen years have passed since the German legend was winding down the last days of her career. There’s a lot more to her story than seven Wimbledon, six French Open, five U.S. Open and four Australian Open titles. She did more than dominate every surface and major venue. She was more than a tennis champion.

During her time, Graf defined tennis with dignity and character. Many of us still miss her, but we were lucky enough to say that we saw her career.