Profile: Steffi Graf - Steffi

There was a time, not so long ago, when you looked at Steffi Graf and thought, what a pity. A funny thing to think about someone who had won so many millions of pounds on the tennis-court, perhaps. Graf was still in her twenties, still in the midst of what should have been her prime. But she was no longer racing across the court to launch a crunching forehand pass with the lovely athletic freedom that had been her signature since she arrived on the circuit as a 13-year-old prodigy. And no one knew what was going on in her head, except that, whatever it was, she probably didn't deserve it.

Everybody loved watching Stefanie Maria Graf play tennis. In company and in the locker-room she was quiet, even aloof, not at all one of the girls. In action, however, she incarnated a kind of metaphysical joy. You watched her hit a running forehand and you imagined you knew what kind of a person she was.

She wasn't beautiful in any of the usual ways. Not even Patric Demarchelier, who photographed her for Vogue when she was 20, could turn those big, peasant-girl features and that nondescript hair into conventional cover- girl looks. Yet when she was hitting a ball there was something in the way she moved, something about the arrangement and articulation of the limbs, that created a different kind of beauty.

But as she struggled to play through the pain of a deep-seated back injury, it looked as though some small but vital element of her art, perhaps the thing that made the difference between a contender and a champion, had been driven out of her. She had been 5ft 9in and 132lb of power and grace. Now she was just another player, hot and uncomfortable in defeat.

That, clearly, was what Martina Hingis thought last year, when she dismissed the possibility of a renewed challenge from the woman whose pre-eminence she had usurped. You could not take Graf's record away from her, the teenager said, but the game was faster and more athletic now. "She's old, and her time has gone."

These words may have been on both players' minds when they met in the final of the French Open two weeks ago. "Not one of you expected me to be here," Graf told journalists before the match. "I did not expect it myself." It was the first meeting between the two in the final of a Grand Slam tournament, and it was the one major competition Hingis had yet to win. But, confronted by something resembling the old Steffi Graf, the current world No 1 was found wanting. She cracked, and the echo will be heard next week around the precincts of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, where the two women are seeded to meet each other in the Wimbledon final.

Hingis had been made to eat her words. But she is not the only one guilty of faulty predictions on this particular topic. Back in 1988, when she became the third woman in history to win all four Grand Slam tournaments inside a calendar year - as well as taking Olympic gold in Seoul - Graf herself was pretty clear about what lay ahead. "In 10 years' time," she announced, "I won't still be playing tennis. I can't imagine being 30 and still on the tour."

Last Monday, Graf turned 30. Nine days earlier in Paris she had won her 22nd Grand Slam tournament - renewing speculation that she may yet overhaul Margaret Court's record of 24. Her earnings for the season stand at just over half a million pounds, putting her second in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) money list, behind Hingis, and third in its latest rankings, behind Hingis and Lindsay Davenport. In May she played her 1,000th WTA singles match, from which she has accumulated precisely $21,512,490 in prize money. And her birthday celebrations were enhanced by the news that she had been seeded No 2 at Wimbledon, putting her in line for another rendezvous with Hingis.

That possibility, with respect to the legitimate hopes of Jana Novotna, Venus Williams, Anna Kournikova and others, could be said to represent box-office heaven. A vengeful Hingis, who this week refused to apologise for her Paris tantrums, versus a Graf in full sail and looking for an eighth Wimbledon title - the ratings for that one would go through the roof.

Today, Graf can laugh about her own predictions for her future. "When I was 19," she said in Paris, "I couldn't even imagine being 20. In fact I've been amazed by everything - to have recovered my physical condition, the desire to play, my self-belief and, most of all, the joy of holding up a Grand Slam trophy. Let's say that I owe a lot to the two years when I couldn't play."

Those two years, 1997 and 1998, came at the end of a decade that seemed to hold little besides trouble and pain. Between January 1988 and January 1990 she won eight of nine Grand Slams - and was leading 5-3 in the third set of the ninth, against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in Paris. But then the problems began, starting with allegations of financial and social impropriety against her father, whom she had idolised.

Peter Graf's attempts to diddle the German tax authorities cost him a two-year sentence, of which he served nine months. His daughter, too, paid a heavy price. Not just in the wreck of her parents' marriage but in repayments totalling tens of millions of Deutschmarks. She sold the Manhattan triplex apartment from which she had made expeditions to art shows and rock concerts, although she hung on to her residences in Heidelberg, near her birthplace, and Boca Raton, Florida. While she is clearly not short of the price of a meal, her fortune is not what it might have been. And she has not, so far, made a splash in business; hands up anyone with a pair of Steffi Graf jeans in the closet.

These problems coincided with the discovery of a bone spur in her lower back. When you play around a chronic condition like that, you risk creating what are called compensating injuries. That's what happened. Not surprisingly there were thoughts of retirement, although in 1996 she seemed to have beaten the demons, vanquishing Sanchez Vicario, at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and Monica Seles, in New York. But she hadn't convinced herself. "Even in '96," she said recently, "I was struggling with a lot of different injuries. I think at points I was really lucky to be able to pull out the victories that I had."

And then came the real plunge into the abyss. The injuries forced her to miss four straight Grand Slam events, and when she came back last summer it was to lose to Natasha Zvereva in the third round at Wimbledon. She fell out of the year-end top 10 in 1997 and again in 1998. "It's been some good times, some strange times," she said. "It's just been a difficult road."

So victory in Paris a fortnight ago, when she became the first woman in the open era to beat the world's top three (Hingis, Davenport and Seles) in a single tournament to take her first Grand Slam title in two and a half years, released a flood of relief. Her father was there, too, sitting with her younger brother, Michael, half a dozen rows away from her mother, Heidi. At the end of the match, the estranged parents embraced.

"At the beginning of the year," she said, "things didn't go so well. But in the last two weeks I've rediscovered the pleasure of tennis. I feel more open now, more able to express my feelings without the fear of losing my concentration. I've got rid of the burden of records. Now I want to be happy with what what I do, as well as with my game. Maybe that's why I've started winning again. It's a bit like turning back time."

And then she added this: "Focusing on tennis has allowed me to forget all the other things and to concentrate more deeply on my problems. Because it's only on the court that I can be alone."

Since adolescence, her entire life - from her teenage menstrual cycle, charted in a German magazine, to her father's affairs - has been exposed to public scrutiny. Yet the only place she can find some peace is in front of packed grandstands and squadrons of photographers. This, sometimes, is the condition of the modern sports celebrity. How little we really know her. And oh, how we'll miss her when she's gone.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss