Farewell Steffi, model of fortitude

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-oldblonde on Court Seven," said Rex Bellamy, an acknowledged expert in everything but the choice of suitable sports shirts. "You will be seeing a lotmore of her."

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-oldblonde on Court Seven," said Rex Bellamy, an acknowledged expert in everything but the choice of suitable sports shirts. "You will be seeing a lotmore 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 aSouth African called Beverly Mould to claim a niche in the Roland Garros annals by becoming the first to defeat Steffi at the French. Not manypeople managed to do that subsequently. The brisk, businesslike German, forever looking as if she was hurrying for the last bus, hustled to sixtitles 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, shedecided, 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 injuryto 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 latestpain 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 lowerback 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 asimple black sweater. "The operation would mean opening me up from the front and right now I'm too young for something like that." A checkwith 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 in1996 for evading tax payments on her prize money. Her parents' marriage broke up and Steffi, never the most gregarious of athletes, did not smilemuch 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, aremarkable stint. She was not the greatest female ever to play tennis. That honour belongs to Navratilova. But she ruled for a record 377 weeks atNo 1, longer even than Martina. After that stunning win at the French Open in June there were supporters who dreamed of Steffi surpassingMargaret 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 atsomething 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 toher growing menagerie. If people couldn't be trusted, animals could. Now, a bit like Brigitte Bardot, she plans to take up animal welfare. Luckyanimals, unlucky us. There will never be another tennis girl with Steffi Graf's aura.

Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor