Who is Steffi Graf?
With 22 Grand Slams, 4 Olympic medals and 107 titles in her kitty and an inexhaustibly fruitful career spanning over 17 years, Steffi Graf is truly one of the best athletes that the 20th century witnessed. Her brilliance at the tennis court is evident from the long list of firsts that she carries till date, more than a decade after her retirement. Graf’s love for the game started young and led to her becoming a top-notch player in the game. She not only is the only player with four Grand Slams and Olympics Gold in one calendar year, has also the highest number of Grand Slam victories since introduction of Open Era in 1968. Her virtuosity and expertise at courts was evident in the ranking order as she retained the world top position for 186 consecutive weeks, a feat unmatched till date. What’s more, during her whole career, she was a top seeded player for a record 377 weeks, a record which remains unrivalled. It was the versatility coupled with Graf’s sheer tenacity and skill for the game that made her an unsurpassed star such that even when injuries incapacitated her, Graf rebounded in style and with success. Undoubtedly, she has been the reigning star of the game and thus voted as the ‘Greatest Tennis Female Player’ by a number of magazines, associations, critics and sports channels.
Childhood & Early Life
Steffi Graf was born as Stefanie Maria Graf to Peter and Heidi Graf in Mannheim, Germany. She has a brother named Michael.
Graf’s tryst with tennis started when she was merely three years old. Her father, who was an aspiring tennis coach, taught toddler Graf how to swing a wooden racket. A year later, she hit the court and began practicing officially. This was the modest beginning to what became an international successful career.
While still young, Graf began playing junior tournaments and winning the same. In 1982, she won the 1982 European Championships 12s and 18s.
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Graf’s first outing professionally was for the 1982 Porsche Grand Prix at Filderstadt, Germany. She was only 13 at that time. Though she lost the game to opponent Tracy Austin by 6–4, 6–0, this did very little to dishearten the young blood.
Graf secured the World 124th position in her first year. Though she did not win any title for the next three consecutive years, her ranking nevertheless steadily rose to World No. 98, No. 22, and No. 6 in 1983, 1984 and 1985, respectively.
It was at the 1984 fourth round Centre Court match at Wimbledon that Graf came to the limelight when she almost upset the tenth seed, Jo Durie of the United Kingdom. She went on to win the tennis demonstration event at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Following years, Graf emerged as the top challenger at the US Open. Though she lost both to Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, she was consistent enough to reach the finals and the semi-finals.
April 13, 1986 was a seminal day for Graf as she won her first WTA tournament by beating Chris Evert in the finals of the Family Circle Cup in Hilton Head, South Carolina. She followed up the same by winning at Amelia Island, Charleston, and Berlin.
Struck by illness and toe injury, Graf missed the Wimbledon but was back to top health just before US Open. Though she lost to Navratilova twice, she won three consecutive indoor titles at Tokyo, Z�rich, and Brighton.
Breakthrough & Success
The breakthrough for Graf’s career happened in 1987 when she defeated both Martina Navratilova in semi-finals and Chris Evert in the finals of a tournament in the Miami. Later in the French Open finals, Graf defeated Navratilova, who was the World No. 1, after beating Gabriela Sabatini in a three-set semi-final.
In 1988, she struck gold by not only winning all the four Grand Slam titles, but the Olympic Gold Medal as well. With this, she became the first and the only player to achieve this feat.
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While Graf gained an easy victory over Chris Evert in the finals of Australian Open, at the French Open, she defeated Natasha Zvereva thus successfully defending her title. At Wimbledon, Graf was playing against Navratilova when she won the match, thus ending the latter’s winning streak. In the US Open, Graf played against Sabatini defeating her and winning the Calendar Year Grand Slam.
The blazing trail of victory reached the peak when Graf defeated Sabatini 6–3, 6–3 in the gold medal match at the Olympic Games in Seoul. Additionally, Graf also won her only Grand Slam doubles title that year at Wimbledon partnering Sabatini and picked up a women's doubles Olympic bronze medal.
The following year, the winning streak of 1988 continued as Graf went on to win the Australian Open, defeating Helena Sukov� in the final.
This was soon followed up with easy victories each in Washington, D.C., San Antonio, Texas, Boca Raton, Florida, and Hilton Head, South Carolina. The Washington tournament was notable as it was the first time that Graf won the first 20 points.
At the French Open, however, Graf lost to Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, thus putting a halt to her exuberant record of wins. Nevertheless, she jumped back to form winning the Wimbledon and US Open, beating Martina Navratilova on both occasions. Year 1989 thus brought Graf three Grand Slam titles.
Year 1990, brought mixed results for Graf. While she won the Australian Open defeating Mary Joe Fernandez, she failed to make it to the finals of Wimbledon and US Open. As for French Open, she lost the finals to Monica Seles. Despite the defeat, Graf retained the position as a top ranked player
Loss of form, injuries and personal difficulties overshadowed Graf’s career as she hit the lowest lows of her career till then. Graf not only lost the Grand Slam titles, but also lost her No. 1 rank to Monica Seles, who became the World No. 1, thus ending Graf's record 186 consecutive-weeks hold on to the position. The only respite for the year was the quarter final she played against Judith Wiesner, which recorded her 500th career victory.
Year 1992 was the revival year for Graf. Though she missed the Australian Open and lost the French Open and US Open, she recorded a win at the Wimbledon finally defeating Monica Seles. At the Olympics, Graf secured the silver medal. As for Virginia Slims Championships, she lost the tournament thrice in a row.
Continued Era of Dominance
Year 1993 brought back Graf on track as she went on to win three out of the four Grand Slams, losing the Australian Open to Seles, who was unable to compete for the next two years as she was stabbed by a mentally ill Graf fan. The victories helped Graf retain her World No. 1 ranking on 7th June.
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Another remarkable victory for Graf was when she won her first Virginia Slims Championships since 1989 by beating Sanchez Vicario in the final.
For the first time since long, Graf was free from any kind of injuries in 1994. She began the year on a winning note, gaining triumph over the Australian Open where she defeated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
The next couple of games brought sad results as Graf was struggling with her form. She lost to Mary Pierce in a French Open semi-final, to Lori McNeil at the first round in Wimbledon. Her match against Sanchez Vicario in the US Open final lead to the victory of the latter, while Graf succumbed to her aggravated back injury.
The Virginia Slims Championships also brought depressing result as Graf went on to lose the same as well.
Graf missed out the 1995 Australian Open due to her injury but made it to the rest of the Grand Slam competitions. Magic happened as Graf went on to win the rest of the three Grand Slams, beating Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in French Open and Wimbledon and Monica Seles in Up Open.
Year 1996 was a replica of 1995 in matters of Grand Slam victories as Graf missed out on Australian Open due to injury but successfully defended her titles for the rest of the three Grand Slams.
Injuries caused a major setback and crumpled the glorious rundown of Graf as she not only failed to win a single Grand Slam title but also lost her No. 1 position to Martina Hingis.
She took a breath of relief by defeating World No. 2 Hingis and World No. 1 Lindsay Davenport en route to the Philadelphia title in 1998. Later, she went on to defeat World No. 3 Jana Novotn� at the first round of season-ending Chase Championships
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Year 1999 was a mixed bag. While she won quite a few warm up games, she lost the quarter-finals of Australian Open to Monica Seles. As for French Open, she reached the finals, her first time in the last three years and went on to win the same defeating Hingis. Graf reached the finals of Wimbledon later losing it to Davenport. With this, she announced her retirement from the women's tour. She was ranked at the World No. 3 position at that time.
Post retirement, Graf played a few games and competed in some matches. However, it was purely for recreational and charitable purpose as Graf had no intention of making it back to the game professionally.
In 2005, she competed in one tie World Team Tennis wherein though she lost the singles, recorded a win in the mixed doubles.
In 2009, she played a singles exhibition match against Kim Clijsters and a mixed doubles exhibition alongside her husband Andre Agassi against Tim Henman and Clijsters.
In 2010, she participated in the World Team Tennis Smash Hits exhibition in Washington D.C., to support The Elton John Aids Foundation. She played celebrity doubles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles before her strained calf muscle caused her exit.
Awards & Achievements
In 1986, Steffi Graf won her debut award in the category of ‘Newcomer of the Year’ by Corel WTA Tour.
She collected ‘Player of the Year’ award eight times, four times in a row from 1987 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996.
1988 was the most significant year as she became the first and only tennis player to achieve the Calendar Year Golden Slam by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year.
She is the only player to win five consecutive Grand Slams from 1988-89 and a total of 7 Grand Slams out of 8 in two calendar years 1988 to 1989.
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She has won a total of 22 Grand Slams singles titles from 1988 until 1999, with at least four victories in each of the four Grand Slams.
She was ranked#1 for 186 consecutive weeks, from August 17, 1987 to March 10, 1991. Overall, she was ranked#1 for 377 weeks in total during her whole career, which is a record.
In 1998, she was bestowed ‘Most Interesting Player of the Year’ award by Corel WTA Tour.
Year 1999 witnessed Graf receiving numerous awards. She won the ‘Prince of Asturias Award’, one of the most important awards of Spain, the German Television Award’, ‘Athlete of the Century’ for the category ‘Female Athlete In Ballsports’ and ‘Female Athlete of the Year’ by German TV broadcaster ARD.
Additionally, same year she won ‘Female Sports Award of the last Decade’ by ESPY, Las Vegas and Olympic Medal of Honor’.
Graf has been the proud recipient of the ‘Medal of Honor’ which was bestowed upon her by the Prime Minister of the German Federal State Baden-Wuertemberg, Mr. Erwin Teufel in 2002.
In 2004, she was inducted in the Tennis Hall of Fame.
In 2007, she won the ‘German Media Prize’ for authentic social commitment
Personal Life & Legacy
Steffi Graf was in a romantic relationship with fellow German tennis player Alexander Mronz and racing car driver Michael Bartels over the 1990s. However, none of them materialized though her affair was Bartels was a long term one.
On October 22, 2001, she tied the nuptial knot with tennis star Andre Agassi. Her wedding ceremony was a private affair with no pompous arrangements. The couple has been blessed with a son, Jaden Gil (2001) and daughter Jaz Elle (2003).
Her powerful inside-out forehand drive in the tennis court earned her the nickname Fr�ulein Forehand.
She is the only player to win all the four Grand Slams and the Olympic Gold Medal in one particular calendar year.
In her career, she won 22 Grand Slams: seven titles at Wimbledon, five titles at the US Open, six French Open and four wins at the Australian Open. Additionally, she has four Olympic medals, two Golds, one Silver and one Bronze.
She was the top ranked women’s tennis player for a total of 377 weeks, out of which she maintained her position for a record 186 consecutive weeks.
She played in 36 Grand Slam singles tournaments from the 1987 French Open, her first Grand Slam win, through the 1999 French Open, her last Grand Slam win.
Wimbledon was this ace tennis star’s favourite Grand Slam tournament and, grass was her favoured surface.
She is the founder and chairperson of "Children for Tomorrow", a non-profit foundation for implementing and developing projects to support children who have been traumatized by war or other crises.