Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - No drama as Graf plays out final scene

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a modest farewell. Steffi Graf scattered no roses after her valedictory performance in SW19 yesterday. There was not even a wave.

The German preferred to leave the greatest stage to her conqueror, Lindsay Davenport. Soon Graf will no longer be a member of the tennis troupe at all.

There was no definitive word yesterday on an actual retirement date. But Graf would not even commit herself to next month's US Open so this, the 53rd Grand Slam of her career, may have been the last.

At the end, Graf had a smile for Alan Mills, the tournament referee. She had a smile for everybody. She seemed rather relieved it was all over. Her father, Peter, served time behind bars for tax evasion and his daughter, too, has been in a prison of sorts for much of her sporting life. Now there will be some kind of release.

"In a way I feel like a winner getting out of this tournament," she said. "There have been difficult times, they've been well documented, and there have been unbelievable, great times. It's been a lot of fun but there's got to be a certain time when I've got to move on with something else in my life."

The 31st and almost certainly last Grand Slam singles final of Graf's career was conducted in a curious atmosphere. The women's final is not used to being treated as an appetiser, yet this was indeed a consomme of an affair with little for the crowd to get their teeth into.

The audience itself was small at the outset, a contempt that may have unsettled Graf at the beginning of her final act. She dropped serve in the first game.

The spectators were behind Steffi but it was hardly a sulphurous response spilling from the seats. There was polite applause. It was very British. It was very Sunday.

It seemed most of the viewing emotion was being reserved for the men's final. It was going to be a long day out there and they didn't want to go too early with their sentiments.

They saw a sparkless Steff. The German made little encouraging fists to herself and slaps on the thigh after successful points. They were mannerisms we did not see as much as usual.

Graf again had her left thigh bandaged but the leg did not inconvenience her. The same could not be said of Davenport, the quiet champion. "The few chances that I had I either played them tentatively or always made a mistake," Graf said. "There was something missing today. I didn't feel that I was playing so well."

Still, she appreciated the surroundings and her supporters. "It's very special to go out there and stepping on court today was again a great moment," she said. "I wish I could have shown more and maybe gotten into the third set. They have been so good to me.

"It has been great here. I'm pretty happy how I've done."

At 1.07 the skies had darkened and the rain started coming down. It seemed that Nostradamus had been right all along. It was the only point of the match at which Graf hinted she might be in the ascendant. But 10 anticlimactic minutes after the restart it was all over.

We will no longer see Graf bouncing on the baseline to return service. We will no longer witness the bludgeoning forehand that still managed to hit 16 winners on a bad afternoon yesterday. She will be missed.

Graf and Wimbledon go back to 1984, when the fraulein reached the fourth round as a 15-year-old. There have been 14 championship appearances, seven of them victorious. Now, aged 30, that is enough. She went out to play yesterday knowing it was the end. "It's a decision," she said. "I've been pretty sure about it for a long time."

Steffi Graf walks away from us with great grace and still at the pinnacle of her profession. Her memory will be the reward for the manner of her going.