“We have what is possibly a historic moment here today. Steffi Graf has reached match point for the second time against Gabriela Sabatini, following a 6-3, 5-3 match. Sabatini to serve. Second service is returned with a powerful forehand shot from Graf and the match is over. Game, set and match to Graf who wins the Olympic Gold for her victory over Sabatini.”
This was Steffi Graf at the Seoul Olympic Games and it was October 1, 1988; a date which will forever be etched in tennis lore. Earlier opponents (Leila Meskhi, Soviet Union and Catherine Suire, France) had been unable to challenge Graf’s superiority. It was Larisa Savchenko, a Latvian-born player, who posed as a hiccup during her run to the medal.
However, Graf kept her dream of a ‘Golden Slam’ alive. The 11th-seeded Savchenko and others knew that the best chance to beat a mentally exhausted Graf would be early on, but the German was not going to give up as she grinded her way to a three-set win to ensure a final’s clash against Sabatini.
This was her year, and with one golden stroke, she had engraved her place in the tennis halls of fame. The 19-year-old became the first player – male or female – to reach such ascendancy. For her, this was bigger than winning the four Majors she had accumulated the same year (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open); for now, she had run out of challenges and for once, she would finally agree.
“I was a bit tired emotionally, probably physically as well. I just remember arriving at the airport and all the attention that I was getting; I just think I wasn’t quite prepared for it at that point.
“To me this was bigger than a grand slam, it was more special. It’s a different feeling; it’s something not many people after me will achieve.”
Let’s rewind back to when she started proving to critics that her achievements were no ‘flash in the pan’.
During the 1980s, the tennis world had begun speculating, as they do in all sports, who would replace Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova — the two great titans of the women’s game. Graf came into the 1988 season riding on the back of her first Grand Slam win – the 1987 French Open – and was also a losing finalist (to Navratilova) in the US Open that year.
Both Evert and Navratilova had taken notice of Graf’s emerging talent on tour in 1987 and had revealed their admiration for her to the media.
“A lot of people are treating this as a negative thing against Martina and me, but we’re relieved. Everybody’s been critical of women’s tennis, wondering what’s going to happen when we’re gone. Well, now it’s in a secure position. She’s got a champion’s mind.”
Navratrilova echoed the sentiments.
“She’s a champion. She’s a very good player and I like her determination.”
Possibly the most complete female athlete of all time, Graf was a rare jewel for the sport with her blood-chilling forehead – she was often dubbed as ‘Fraulein Forehand’ – her quick disposition of opponents and nuclear serve.
She was a dominant force on all surfaces; her fast footwork was impressive to say the least, and she would sweep through the ball and strike countless outright winners with her flat stroke. She spoke loudly with her racquet, but was a woman of quiet dignity; her only questionable trait was her lack of appearance off the court for social gatherings and her need to maintain a distance from the spotlight.
It wasn’t all sunshine though. The 90s were a rollercoaster ride for Graf following struggles with more than 70 injuries, illnesses and private problems and numerous comebacks after losses to several challengers, most notably Monica Seles, Sabatini and Martina Hingis.
However, the German deserves her place on the pedestal. She is the only player to this date to have won the quartet of slams four times each, and by the time she had finished – in 1999 when she retired at the age of 30 – she had won 22 in all, only second to Margaret Court’s 24; she also has three Olympic medals and 107 titles to her kitty.
To add further gleam to her dominant form, she topped the world rankings for a staggering 377 weeks!
No one could imagine that it all began when Graf’s father, a car insurance salesman from Bruhl, Germany, taught his three-year-old daughter how to swing a sawed-off racquet in their living room. That paid off. Her first full professional year began in 1983; she was 13 at the time and ranked 124 in the world.
From then on, Graf took the tennis world by storm and turned it upside down.
Her mantra was, “I never look back, I look forward.”
For the complete Hall of Fame series, log on to HALL OF FAME.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2014.
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