Tennis: Farewell Steffi, model of fortitude

Ronald Atkin recalls the triumphs and traumas of a player with a matchless aura
IT WAS the man from the Times who first alerted me to Steffi Graf at the 1983 French Open. "Pop along and have a look at the 13-year-old blonde on Court Seven," said Rex Bellamy, an acknowledged expert in everything but the choice of suitable sports shirts. "You will be seeing a lot more of her."

Rex was spot on, as ever. The gangly teenager, then in pre-ponytail days, saw off Sweden's Carina Carlsson in straight sets before permitting a South African called Beverly Mould to claim a niche in the Roland Garros annals by becoming the first to defeat Steffi at the French. Not many people managed to do that subsequently. The brisk, businesslike German, forever looking as if she was hurrying for the last bus, hustled to six titles in Paris and another 16 Grand Slams, including seven Wimbledons.

Now, just as briskly, she has departed the scene. Not for her the lingering, tear-stained farewells of a Martina Navratilova. The time had come, she decided, to pack it in, so she went, bidding a brief and simple, if undeniably emotional, farewell in her home town, Heidelberg.

The catalyst was, apparently, yet another calf strain, suffered in the opening round of a Californian tournament two weeks ago. Yet another injury to combat and to overcome. This time it was a strain too far.

You had to wonder in the end what, except fortitude, held Steffi together.

The abiding memory is not of 22 Grand Slam trophies held smilingly aloft but of countless tight-faced press conferences with details of the latest pain being endured. The most graphic of these was at an indoor event in Paris in February 1995 when Steffi told simply how bones in her lower back had fused and turned on-court movement into agony. "This is something I will have to learn to live with," said the 26-year-old woman in a simple black sweater. "The operation would mean opening me up from the front and right now I'm too young for something like that." A check with an expert on back ailments elicited the information that Steffi's condition was something more frequently found in women in their sixties.

The Graf body took an awful beating in the name of tennis, world fame and millionairess status. Knees, ankles, fingers, toes, shoulders, elbows - all suffered serious damage. The mind took a beating, too, never more horribly than when her beloved and trusted father, Peter, went to prison in 1996 for evading tax payments on her prize money. Her parents' marriage broke up and Steffi, never the most gregarious of athletes, did not smile much after that.

Clutching privacy fiercely to her against the intrusions of the German media, Steffi enjoyed the fleeting opportunities to let that blonde hair down. During the years of her regular participation at the Brighton tournament Steffi and her mother, Heidi, got into the habit of going to an off-the- record dinner as guests of the British tennis writers. Steffi tended to be touched by such simple gestures of friendship. Surrounded by adulation, she treasured the bunch of posies given her one day at Brighton by one of our number as a small gesture of thanks for a one-on-one interview.

Steffi, as is well documented, started swatting a tennis ball at four. So, in the end, she put in a quarter of a century's work on the game, a remarkable stint. She was not the greatest female ever to play tennis. That honour belongs to Navratilova. But she ruled for a record 377 weeks at No 1, longer even than Martina. After that stunning win at the French Open in June there were supporters who dreamed of Steffi surpassing Margaret Court's 24 Grand Slams. But not her. "I don't wake up and start wondering how many titles I have won," she once said. It was 107, actually, including the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.

That was perhaps the most significant of all, since the long-legged, wide-shouldered Steffi would surely have become an Olympic champion at something like the 800 metres had tennis not intervened.

There was a significant moment at the Key Biscayne tournament in March this year when she came across a stray dog and promptly added it to her growing menagerie. If people couldn't be trusted, animals could. Now, a bit like Brigitte Bardot, she plans to take up animal welfare. Lucky animals, unlucky us. There will never be another tennis girl with Steffi Graf's aura.