Tennis: Graf set for final chapter

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STEFFI GRAF will close out her illustrious career at the end of the year. "This is definitely my last season," Graf told reporters in Mahwah, New Jersey, where she was promoting an exhibition tournament."I'm not so tired of the game. I look forward to hitting the ball. I still love it," she said. "But the game is very demanding with all the travelling from one tournament to the next."

Graf, the holder of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, two less then the Australian Margaret Court, will play her 54th and last major championship as she seeks her sixth US Open title in September.

Injury problems have bedevilled her 17-year career and in 1997 she was forced out of the game due to a chronic back injury and recurrent knee problems. There were fears she might never play again as minor injuries kept delaying or interrupting her comeback attempts.

It is a testament to Graf's desire and love for the game that she not only returned to the tour, but came back against all the odds as she took her sixth French Open crown by beating the then world No 1, Martina Hingis, in dramatic fashion. The win lifted her back into the world's top three, and at Wimbledon the 30-year-old reached the final before losing to the new world No 1, Lindsay Davenport.

After her exploits at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Graf announced that she would not play at either Grand Slam again, raising questions that this would be her last year despite the fact that she is still able to play at the highest level of the game. "You always want to go out of a sport when you are on top," she said.

In 1982, Graf became the second youngest woman to receive a World Tennis Association ranking at 13 years and four months, and five years later she won her first Grand Slam title, at the French Open. In August of that year, she became world No 1, a position that she held for 364 weeks - an all-time record. In 1988, she won the "Golden Grand Slam", by winning all four Grand Slam titles as well as the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics.

Despite her success on the court, there have also been unwanted events off it. In 1993, her main rival, Monica Seles, was stabbed by a deranged Graf fan, who wanted the German to reclaim the No 1 ranking, which she duly did. In 1995, her father was sent to prison for tax evasion, but throughout these trying times she managed to find solace on the tennis court.

Graf has won all the Grand Slams at least four times, which is an unprecedented achievement. Her total comprises four Australian, six French, seven Wimbledon and five US Open titles.

Of Court's 24 Grand Slam wins, 11 were Australian Open titles, won during the 1960s, when very few non-Australians participated in the event as it was held at the end of the year with few ranking points on offer. Graf, on the other hand, competed all over the world against the best in the sport.

Graf, probably the best athlete to grace women's tennis, outclassed the opposition with her powerful forehand and one of the best serves in women's tennis. What set her apart from her peers was not merely her speed around the court but her mental tenacity.

After an incredible run this year, she has decided to bow out on her terms, with her place in history assured.