Highs and lows of Graf the great

A glittering career brought a golden Grand Slam, but also injury and private anguish.
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STEFFI GRAF retired from tennis yesterday at the age of 30. So the courts have seen the last of the German thoroughbred with the golden mane and silky stride. Thank goodness for videotape.

STEFFI GRAF retired from tennis yesterday at the age of 30. So the courts have seen the last of the German thoroughbred with the golden mane and silky stride. Thank goodness for videotape.

Opinion will be divided as to whether Graf was the greatest woman player ever, but few would disagree that she had the best legs. Her athleticism was admired by spectators and opponents alike.

Martina Navratilova was agog after one point in particular as Graf won the first of her seven Wimbledon singles titles in 1988. Navratilova, who had a proprietorial attitude towards the Centre Court, finessed a drop volley into an expanse of empty territory. There, in previous years, the point would have ended. Not this time.

Graf, who had trailed by a set and 0-2, checked her progress over the tramlines to her left, bounded across the turf and clipped he ball before its second bounce, sending a trademark forehand past the defending champion. Navratilova would have to wait two years for a record ninth title.

Within two months Graf had become only the third women ever to accomplish a Grand Slam of the four major singles titles - Australia, France, Wimbledon and the United States - in a calendar year. When the American Maureen Connolly and Australia's Margaret Court achieved the feat, three of the four championships were played on grass courts (the exception was the French, which was played on clay).

In 1988 the Australian Open switched from grass to concrete, as had the US Open 10 years earlier. In Melbourne, Graf defeated the American Chris Evert in a rain-interrupted final played mostly under the retractable roof of the new stadium.

Shortly after completing her sweep of the four majors by defeating Gabriela Sabatini, of Argentina, in New York, Graf went on to win the women's singles title at the Olympic Games in Seoul to end the season with a unique "Golden Grand Slam".

On arriving in Seoul after a 20-hour flight Graf had gone to the athletics practice stadium to run with some West German 400-metre men. Pavel Slozil, Graf's coach at the time, had not been consulted and was not best pleased, smiling thinly when recounting that the first thing she had said to him after passing Navratilova as the world No 1 was that she ought to finish with tennis and try to run in the 800m at the Seoul Olympics.

"If she's not a tennis player next time she's born, she's for sure a runner," Slozil said, adding that he considered Graf to have had the talent to be a better athlete than a tennis player. Navratilova had no doubt about the importance of Graf's turn of speed. "It's her biggest weapon," she said. "If she doesn't get there she can't hit that big forehand, but she just gets into position so well. She's got incredible spring in her step and is so quick off the mark."

Graf's forehand was the best and worst in the game, depending on the state of her fitness and overall confidence. Her reluctance to hit the top-spin backhand led to her running round the backhand and playing the forehand inside-out, a habit encouraged by her speed and athleticism.

Although opponents had reason to fear Graf's forehand, they were often worn down by the consistency of her sliced backhand, which was particularly effective on grass courts. She did not have a great deal of faith in her volleying, which was surprising given the potency of her serve, but her ability to cover the court so fluently gave her an attacking edge even when she plotted her strategy from the baseline.

Brisk almost to the point of regarding breaks during change-overs as rude interruptions, Graf performed one of the swiftest executions the sport has seen in dispatching Natasha Zvereva, of Belarus, 6-0, 6-0, in little more than half an hour in the 1988 French Open final. Paris had witnessed Graf's first Grand Slam singles triumph, against Navatilova in 1987, and was the scene of her 22nd, and last, in June, when she capitalised on the tantrums of the 18-year-old Swiss Martina Hingis in the final.

It was gratifying to see Graf thoroughly enjoy her tennis again without worrying about the next stab of pain. Injury free and healthy, she made the most of her time on the slow clay courts. Usually, in recent years, a chronic injury to the lower back would intervene the moment she began to take pleasure in her performance. If the problem was not with the back itself, aches and strains in other parts of her anatomy would be caused by over-compensating for it.

When Graf's problems were not physical, they tended to be emotional, frequently linked to the behaviour of her father, Peter, who was responsible for her passion for tennis but almost drove her out of the game. Steffi, a perfectionist in everything except tax returns, left her business affairs to her father. She paid dearly in Deutschmarks. He went to prison.

What befell her rival Monica Seles, who was stabbed by a deranged Graf fanatic at a tournament in Hamburg in 1993, may have affected Graf more than she revealed. Seles, who had supplanted Graf as the world No 1, did not return to the game for 27 months and her form has never risen to its previous heights.

For all Graf's success around the world, she had a special affection for Wimbledon. On one occasion, when playing in a tournament in Brighton, she spent her day off in London and paid a visit to the All England Club, where she was allowed to hold the Venus Rosewater Dish, which was being polished at the time. She concluded her speech at the 1996 Wimbledon Champions' Dinner by saying she was in "seventh heaven".

In 1989 Graf shared the table with her countryman Boris Becker after the two Germans had won the Wimbledon singles titles. They were born only six miles apart and during their time with Germany's junior training squads Boris would be sent to practise with Steffi if he displeased the coaching staff.

Both played at Wimbledon for the last time this summer. Becker said in 1989: "It's only when I'm a grandfather and she's a grandmother that people will realise what we have achieved." Universal acclaim came a lot sooner than that.

LEADING WOMEN GRAND SLAM WINNERSName Nationality WinsM Smith Court Aus 24Australian Open (11), French (5), Wimbledon (3), US (5)S Graf Ger 22Australian (4) French (6) Wimbledon (7) US (5)H Wills-Moody US 19Australia (0) French (4) Wimbledon (8) US (7)M Navratilova *Czech/US 18Australian (3), French (2), Wimbledon (9), US (4)C Evert US 18Australian (2), French (7), Wimbledon (3), US (6)B J King US 12Australian (1), French (1), Wimbledon (6) US (4)*Became US citizen in 1981

MILESTONES THAT MARKED PROGRESS OF A LEGENDAge: 30Born: 14 June, 1969Birthplace: Bruhl, GermanyLives: Heidelberg, Germany; Boca Raton, FloridaStyle: Right-handedTotal titles: 107Grand Slam titles: 22Australian Open 1988, 1989, 1990, 1994.French Open 1987, 1988, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1999.Wimbledon 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996US Open 1988, 1989, 1993, 1995, 1996

Graf has been the dominant force in the women's game, in particular at Wimbledon, for some 15 years. She has been women's No 1 for a record total of 377 weeks.

In 1982 she became the youngest player to receive a WTA ranking at 13 years and four months.

Has been persistently hampered by injury over the past few years. Suffers from chronic back injury caused by bone spurs in her back. Needed knee surgery in 1997.

On 8 June, 1998, having played only two tournaments in 12 months, she dropped out of the rankings for the first time since 1983.

Bounced back this year by winning the French Open and reaching the Wimbledon final.

A strained left hamstring forced her to retire from a tournament in California earlier this month.