December issue of 1999 Tennis Match Magazine

"I've Done What I've Wanted To Do. I Have Nothing More To Prove."

The German superstar says hello to Agassi and farewell to the game she loves
the same way she played... On her own terms By Andrea Leand

Arthur Ashe stadium at the U.S. Open was the last place anyone expected to
see Steffi Graf after she announced her retirement from the game in the
beginning of August. Even Graf never imagined her clandestine return to a
tennis court- a site where she had spent over half her life- so soon after
her definitive curtain call.

But on the final Sunday of America's Grand Slam, Graf was back, sitting in
the nose-bleed seats, cheering
inconspicuously for her new beau, Andre Agassi. Afterwards, she embraced the
U.S. Open champion in the privacy of the tournament director's office,
without exhibiting the slightest itch to return to the court herself.

"I didn't get a feeling to play again when I was at the [Open]," Graf says.
"I'm very happy with my decision [to retire] and won't change my mind. I
didn't want to be out there and play with the others. I'm happy to let them
have their chances. I've done what I've wanted to do and am happy not to be
a player any more."

Just two weeks earlier, the former world champion needed constant persuasion
to grant the press and public one last appearance or press conference. She
refused to partake in the Arthur Ashe Kid's Day festivities before the start
of the U.S. Open. She scoffed at interviews and autograph signings. She
bypassed the locker room and her colleagues without a word. In fact, Graf
whipped in and out of the National Tennis Center for a minimum of
perfunctory obligations before going horseback riding for ten days in
Arizona. But between her swift good-bye and her flight westward, Graf found
time for Agassi.

Their flirtation developed over the previous months, spurred by their
proximity at Wimbledon. Consider that Graf's seven-year relationship with
long-time boyfriend Michael Bartels never resonated with the warm, fuzzy
feelings one usually associates with a young couple over-the-top in love.
The 30-year-old rarely talked about Bartels or showed any signs of affection
towards him. She never mentioned marriage, children or pursuing a future
with the German race car driver when she discussed life after tennis. By the
time she announced her retirement, the relationship seemed as stale as her
desire to compete, and she was fertile ground for a new direction in life
and some fun.

Enter Agassi. Who better to boost Graf's spirits than the perpetual comeback
kid himself? Agassi understood the sacrifices and demands at the top of
tennis. He could relate first-hand to the influence of a dominating father.
He knew how such a career could become an all-consuming obsession. Only a
year ago, Agassi struggled with his own personal and professional lives and
found a way towards peace with both. Now, it was Graf's turn.

"When I decided to retire, I had a husband and a family that I wanted to
start," says Chris Evert. "I always thought it was easier to retire and make
such a big life change when you had something to go to. Up until now, tennis
seemed to be Steffi's life. There was nothing to fill the void, nothing for
her to go to. But I guess that's changed."

In the subsequent months, Graf seemed to adopt some of Agassi's flair in her
string of public appearances. She glowed during dates with Andre in New
York, on a solo trip to South Africa and while accepting an award in Spain.
She showed no shyness in kissing Agassi at a televised boxing match or
during Agassi's annual gala event in Las Vegas.

"I feel like a very happy man," says Agassi. "I couldn't ask for anything
more in my life. I had to be the aggressor and it took some time [to date
Graf]. But it's been great. I've always had a lot of respect for Steffi."

The public gushing between the two sent shock waves through the tennis
world. The best-kept secret during the fortnight was bulging at the seams.
Graf, who guarded her privacy with such ferocity during her career, now
appeared in public as a blushing schoolgirl. Her attraction to Agassi
permeated even her own self-imposed boundaries. For once, Graf did not seem
the tunnel-visioned champion or the stoic-faced competitor, but a
30-year-old making up for lost time.

"I've played tennis and devoted everything to my [career] for so many
 years," Graf says. "It feels good to do different things, not to have to
practice every day. I can get up in the morning and do what ever I want. I
don't have to worry about schedules or tournaments or rehab. I can live like
a normal person and enjoy normal things now."

Few saw this epiphany coming. Graf's decision to call it quits was as
stunning as her French Open triumph and runner-up performance at Wimbledon
this year. Just when it seemed Steffi had overcome career-threatening
injuries and re-ignited her game, she turned her back on it all- on Margaret
Court's record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles that she came so close to
breaking And the No.1 ranking which was well within reach once again after
she skyrocketed to No.3.

There was also the question of pride. For the last few years, as Steffi
struggled with surgery and abbreviated comebacks, she took a licking from
the game's insurgent teenagers. Martina Hingis sniped that Graf "was too
 old" for the fast-evolving game. Others simply ambushed the former world
champion on court.

"I never talked about other players my whole career and I'm not going to
now," Graf says. "My results are there, that's enough. If other players
wanted to say things about me, there was nothing that I could do about it
other than go out there and play my best tennis. Which I was able to do."

Graf responded as she had her entire career, with relentless fury and
unrelenting focus. Even though she would not publicly admit it, she took the
insults aimed at either her family or herself personally. When anyone dared
to attack her territory, she retaliated the best way she knew how: working
on her game and winning tennis matches. When the German Tennis Federation
did not fully support her during her junior days, she took the snub to
heart, forever aligning herself with her father/coach Peter and becoming
arguably the greatest player of all time.

"No one will ever know how my father supported me when I was a junior and no
one cared," Graf reveals. "He was there for me and believed in me. That was
so important to me and was a big reason why I was able to improve my game
and become successful."

Her father's unconditional support during those lean years made an indelible
impression on Graf and cemented her staunch loyalty to her father. She stood
by him through his trial and incarceration for tax evasion, visiting him in
jail as often as possible. And when her father divorced and remarried this
spring, Graf attended the ceremony.

Her impenetrable bond with her father was never more evident than during a
match early in her career, at the 1984 Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart,
Germany. Graf, then 15-years-old, had started to make her ascent up the
rankings but still was not a sure thing or a definitive star in her home
country. Her predecessors- Bettina Bunge, Sylvia Hanika and Claudia
Kohde-Kilsch- still commanded the spotlight and perks.

Some say Mr.Graf created animosity and alienation between his daughter and
Germany's tennis hierarchy. Nevertheless, the impasse remained as Graf
developed. Even though the willowy teenager clearly possessed the talent and
tenacity to be a champion, the German press, tennis officials and the public
seemed hell-bent on making her prove it before giving her any credit. And
they also seemed hell-bent on sticking it to her father.

At the Porsche Grand Prix, one of the most illustrious tour stops and
Germany's prime pro showcase, I remember vividly facing Graf in the
semi-finals on the stadium court. I was ranked in the top twenty at the time
and was a tour veteran, and fully expected to overpower this rookie.

For much of the match I did. Her dodgy one-handed slice backhand sat up for
me to tee off on, and her extended elbow on the forehand looked as if it
would disconnect from her arm. But Graf never gave up. I dominated off the
ground, although Graf retrieved far more balls than I expected. I would
blast winners into the corners, only to see them returned with disconcerting
pace. Somehow, I found myself in a third set. But just when my veteran
experience looked like it would pay off, all hell broke loose.

I remember leading 3-2 in that final set up a service break when officials
started crowding the court. I was unaware of any problems and could not
understand the German
conversations between the umpire and the tournament referee. But I knew
something was up when two officials surrounded Mr.Graf, who was sitting in
the front row of a courtside box. Steffi grew angrier as the conversation
continued. Finally, the umpire informed me that Mr.Graf was coaching from
the stands illegally.

I did not notice Peter Graf coaching at all- or should I say not more than
other coaches did on the tour. Even if he had been giving Steffi hand
signals, it was not helping her. I was still in control of the match and she
was growing frustrated. And, as the old adage goes, if it ain't broke, don't
fix it. So I did not want any action taken and argued that point with the
umpire. Back then, umpires never took action unless a player complained. And
I was stunned that German officials wanted to penalize one of their own.
When they booted Peter Graf from the arena, I was dumbstruck, along with a
sold-out stadium crowd.

This was unheard of at the time. It was not until ten years later that
another parent would be escorted from an event- when Mary Pierce's father
Jim struck a spectator at the French Open and was kicked out of Roland
Garros. But on this occasion, Graf felt her father's pain and embarrassment
and retaliated furiously to the indignation- as I knew she would. With
adrenaline flowing, she blasted balls on the lines, issuing insults to the
umpire between winners. I tried to slow the pace, stall her momentum, give
her time to calm down and return to her former frustrated self, but to no

When she began charging the net with the score 5-5, I knew I was in trouble.
Steffi attacking net? It was as unlikely then as it was 15 years later. But
she was out of her mind, rushing in like a raging bull at a red flag. At
deuce I put up a deep lob, knowing her overhead was one of her dicier shots.
With aplomb Graf galloped back, leaped up in the air and slam dunked the
ball past me. That was the match.

Neither of us shook hands with the umpire after she prevailed 7-5. That
umpire ruined my chance to win the prized Porsche given the victor. And
instead of getting my picture in the paper the next day, photos of Steffi's
father being escorted from the arena like a criminal monopolized the
headlines. Steffi boycotted the tournament for the next 13 years, playing it
only once more at the end of her career.

It was that intensity that made Graf great- and in my opinion the greatest
of all time. Steffi went on to win all the majors at least four times each.
She captured all four majors in the same calendar year to win the Grand Slam
in 1988 and made it a Golden one by winning the gold medal at the Olympics
in Seoul. At the beginning of her career, she beat the legends of the past,
ruled at No.1 longer than any other player in history, and at the end of her
career overtook the youngsters at the top of the game.

Still, these accomplishments did little to melt Graf's icy image. I always
smiled when Steffi was described as "cold, aloof or robotic" because she was
anything but that. She simply hid her feelings by channelling them into her
tennis. With little formal education (Steffi did not graduate from high
school) and little social interaction, Graf seemed to insecure to express
her opinions verbally, so she expressed herself with her racquet. The more
emotion she felt, the harder she played.

"I tried feeling like I did not have anything to prove but to myself", says
Graf. "Nothing gave me the same high as winning a big match or hitting a
hard shot. Maybe all the comments [from Hingis, et al] made the matches
bigger for me. Those highs from winning were hard to find anywhere else.
They kept me going.""

When Graf was angry, she produced her best tennis. Her disgust often came
from feeling slighted or underestimated. Hingis' insults motivated her
beyond what even she believed she could obtain. Graf never expected to win
the French Open this year. Upending three top seeds- Davenport, Seles and
Hingis- en route to the title was a triumph of mind over matter. Although
the various injuries she's suffered over the years had softened her
perfectionist approach to the game, the killer look in her eye during the
French Open final against Hingis reminded me of her glaring countenance
toward the umpire in Stuttgart 15 years ago.

On the other hand, when Graf was happy, she appeared distracted on the
court, without her usual edge. And Steffi without that edge was just another
top player. Let's face it: Her strokes were not technically sound. Her
backhand was not an offensive shot, her forehand had a huge mechanical hitch
that required perfect position and balance and her net game was untested and

But catching Graf off guard was a rarity. Tennis monopolized her life. When
she dominated the game in the 80's she thrived on practice and developed her
self-esteem hitting forehands and backhands. Nothing else filled the void.
She tried other sports and business ventures, but they never encapsulated
the same feelings as winning a tournament. She talked of the highs and lows
of her career often, always giddy when recalling the big moments and dour,
if not depressed, over the disappointments.

"Looking back, I can't believe how depressed I would get after a loss," Graf
told me. " I would sit in my room so upset with how I played. I was very
hard on myself. And when rehab for an injury didn't go well, I was hard to
talk to, no question about it. I could be very difficult then."

In the last years, Graf began to show her feelings more. She teared up on
court a few times when the crowd overwhelmed her with affection. She nearly
cried when a group of inner-city kids serenaded her when she appeared at a
school in the United States. She laughed when Serena Williams pounded a few
winning volleys by her at the Evert Cup in Indian Wells. She joked about
hanging in her bedroom the four screws which bonded her knee together for
months after surgery. She skipped giddily onto the podium to accept her
French Open trophy this year. She flirted on Centre Court at Wimbledon with
childhood idol and mixed doubles partner John McEnroe. Then she smooched
with Agassi at the U.S. Open.

"I've always been pretty emotional," says Graf. "I just am not the kind of
person that likes to talk about it. It's personal. And some things have to
stay personal when everything in this career is so public."

That Graf's emotions have recently been front and center for all to see
indicates that she has developed enough self-confidence off the court to
pursue life without the safety net of a racquet. Her retirement had nothing
to do with a fear of losing. She had long since achieved everything there
was to achieve in tennis and was not afraid of losing in another tournament.
And, for a change, she was injury free and as fit as could be expected.

"I can retire with my physical health [preserved]," Graf says. "I can be
active and exercise the rest of my life- which is so important for me.
Fitness had nothing to do with my retirement. And I'm glad that it didn't,
because I could retire on my own terms."

Steffi Graf retired because her intensity was gone. Her effort at the French
Open and Wimbledon this year zapped her emotionally. Getting together with
Agassi then cemented the change. Left on her own, Graf probably would have
revived from her summer successes and shifted back into competitive gear by
the new year. But Agassi was there to fill the void, give her another option
and show her some fun.

Steffi was also happy- too happy to compete in the ferocious way that she
used to. Whether her romance with Agassi lasts or not, Graf clearly was
ready to make the transition. She was finally ready to move on and find a
new life.

"In some ways, it's all new for me now," Graf says. "Travelling to places
for vacation, not for practice. Doing things just because I want to do them.
Seeing new things and just having the time to [waste] if I want. I never
thought that I would see so many options out there once I stopped competing.
But I do. I see more than I ever have."


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