Although she now lives in Las Vegas, Stefanie Maria Graf was born in Mannheim, West Germany on June 14, 1969. She would later become the world’s number one female tennis player. In the 1980s and ’90s Graf was ranked the top woman player by the Women’s Tennis Association for a record 377 weeks (186 consecutive).
Graf reigned over women’s tennis for 13 years, breaking many old records in the process. When she retired from professional tennis in 1999 she was still ranked world No. 3. She continues to play exhibition matches, usually for charity fundraising events. In support of the Elton John Aids Foundation in 2010, she and her husband, Andre Agassi, were on Team Elton John, which competed against Team Billie Jean King.
At the age of three, in her small hometown of Brühl (pop. 14,000, near Mannheim and Heidelberg in the state of Baden-Württemberg), Stefanie was introduced to tennis by her father, Peter Graf (1938- ), who gave her a sawed-off racket she could start swinging in the family’s living room. A year later she was practicing on a tennis court, and played in her first tennis tournament at the age of five. Her father, a former car and insurance salesman, became interested in tennis himself at the age of 27 and became a relatively successful regional player before becoming a tennis coach. He could see the potential tennis talent in his young daughter, and he began a training and match regime designed to realize that potential. Over the years, as her manager, he carefully controlled Steffi’s career.
»Ich glaub’, ich bin immer schon eisern gewesen, ich glaub’, schon als Kind«
“I think I was always tough as iron, I think even as a child.” – Steffi Graf, quoted in Die Zeit (1997)
By the time she was eleven, the German press had already begun using the term “Wunderkind” to describe the young tennis player from the German state of Baden-Württemberg. In the early eighties Graf began her rise in the world tennis rankings. From No. 124 in 1983, she was sixth by 1985. At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Graf represented West Germany by winning the demonstration match when she was only 15 years old.
German Tennis Fever
In the 1980s and ’90s, Germany was often in a state of tennis fever. With Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, “Deutschland” was for a time the leading nation in both men’s and women’s and tennis. Every summer there was hardly a TV set in all of Germany that was not tuned to the broadcast of a Wimbledon match with either Boris (3 wins) or Steffi (7 wins) on the court. On July 7, 1985, 11 million German TV viewers cheered as the 17-year-old Becker won his first Wimbledon contest by defeating Kevin Currens. In 1988, it was Graf’s turn. After losing to her in 1987, Steffi beat six-straight-Wimbledon title holder Martina Navratilova in a hard-fought tournament on Wimbledon’s grass.
Already in her early years, Graf showed the exceptional talent of a rare athlete. She had a combination of leverage and strength that produced a powerful tennis stroke. Her forehand was so bullet-like, it earned her the nickname “Fräulein Vorhand” (“Miss Forehand”) – and great respect and fear from her opponents. Her one-handed backhand wasn’t bad either. She was also good on any kind of court surface. By 1986 Graf had become the top challenger to “elder ladies” Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. After several prior losses, Graf’s first win against Evert came at Hilton Head, South Carolina in April 1986.
Graf’s Grand Slam Year
In 1987 Graf attained the top spot in world women’s tennis for the first time. She would win 75 of the 77 games she played that year. An injury kept her out of the Australian Open in Melbourne, but she went on to defeat Martina Navratilova at the French Open (on clay at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris). With her victory over Chris Evret at Manhattan Beach, California on August 17, she became the number one player in world women’s tennis.
Boris and Steffi Today
In the 1980s they were THE German pair – world tennis stars and the toast of the nation. Since that time Boris Becker and Steffi Graf have led very different lives and gone in totally opposite directions. In June 2009, when Becker (41) married Dutch fashion model Sharlely (“Lilly”) Kerssenberg (32, the second marriage for both) in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Steffi was nowhere to be seen. Rather than joining the 200 prominent guests for Becker’s elaborate Swiss nuptials, Steffi preferred to stay home in Nevada and celebrate her birthday with her family. (The Beckers have a home in London, where Boris sometimes works as a tennis commentator for the BBC and a London newspaper.) Becker’s previous marriage (1993) to American Barbara Feltus ended in a messy Miami divorce in 2001, the same year in which Steffi and Andre were married. Becker’s divorce was the result of the so-called “sex in a broom closet” scandal and the illegitimate child that his quickie with a Russian model produced. – Boris and Steffi, as different as night and day.
In 1988 Graf achieved a Career Grand Slam (winning the four major tournaments): the 1987 French Open, 1988 Australian Open, 1988 Wimbledon and 1988 US Open. She also added a Career Golden Slam by winning the singles Olympic gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, an honor her husband, Andre Agassi also achieved: Wimbledon (1992), the US Open (1994), the Australian Open (1995), the 1996 Olympic gold medal and the French Open (1999). (Rafael Nadal is the only other tennis player in the world to do this.)
In 1989 Graf got her second Wimbledon win (against Navratilova, Evret and Seles). Despite some losses, at the end of 1990, Graf was still ranked No. 1 in the world. But 1991 was not a good year for her. Injuries and losses to several challengers, most notably Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini, made this less than an ideal year for Graf. She decided to drop her longtime Czech coach Pavel Složil. Her new coach, Heinz Gunthardt, would stay with her until her retirement in 1999.
Monica Seles and the Obsessed Steffi Graf Fan
On April 13, 1993 the world was shocked by the on-court stabbing of Monica Seles (1973- ) in Hamburg. During a match with Magdalena Maleeva, in which Seles was leading 6-4, 4-3, a 38-year-old unemployed eastern German man attacked Seles with a knife during a break. It turned out that the perpetrator was a crazed fan of Steffi Graf. Günter Parche stabbed Seles just below her left shoulder blade, he claimed, in order to help Graf regain the world number-one slot (which she did in June 1993). Mostly for psychological reasons, Seles was unable to compete for 28 months after the crime. Graf herself expressed dismay when a German court later gave Parche a light sentence for his attack on Seles (two years’ probation and psychological treatment). Serbian-born Monica Seles vowed never to return to Germany, and she never has. She became a US citizen in 1994 and now lives in Sarasota, Florida. She played her last professional match in 2003. Parche, now in his late fifties, lives quietly with his aunt in Görsbach, Thuringia, in a room decorated with pictures of Steffi Graf.
Graf sat out the 1992 Australian Open due to injury. (Australia was something of a curse for Steffi; injuries kept her out of that January event several times during her career.) At the French Open she lost to Monica Seles, but later beat her at Wimbledon. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, she lost to Jennifer Capriati in the finals, winning a silver medal.
In 1993, Graf’s return to Australia was marred by a loss to Monica Seles. But after Seles was attacked in April and knocked out of competition for over two years (see above), Graf went on to win the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. She regained the No. 1 women’s tennis world ranking on June 7, 1993.
In 1994 Graf won the Australian Open, becoming only the second woman to win a non-calendar-year Grand Slam. (Navratilova had done it in 1983-1984.) The following year, despite having yet again to skip the Australian Open because of injury, Graf won the French Open, Wimbledon and the 1995 US Open (defeating Seles), which made her the only woman ever to win each of the four Grand Slam singles titles at least four times.
The Australian “injury curse” struck again in 1996. As she had done in 1995, Graf went on to win the other three major tournaments and beat Seles at the 1996 US Open. She also broke Martina Navratilova’s record of most total weeks as the top player in the world – and won her 100th career tournament. Graf was named the WTA Player of the Year for a record eighth time.
In 1997 she was finally able to compete again in the Australian Open, but she lost to Amanda Coetzer in the last round. The year was also one in which Graf had two knee surgeries and more missed tournaments, dropping the German champ to the world No. 3 spot for the first time since 1987. Martina Hingis was now No. 1.
1998 was a tough year in which Graf tried to get back in form and regain her top spot. She missed both the Australian and French major tournaments. She had poor showings at Wimbledon and the US Open. Following minor surgery on her right wrist to remove a bone spur in September 1998, Graf returned to the tennis court in November in Leipzig, where she went on to win the title and surpass Martina Navratilova as the top prize money-winner in women’s sports ever. Graf finished 1998 ranked ninth.
1999: Graf’s Last Year as a Pro
The highlight of Graf’s last year in professional tennis came with her victory at the 1999 French Open, her record ninth. The icing on the cake was her defeat of rivals Lindsay Davenport (No. 2), Monica Seles (No. 3) and then top-ranked Martina Hingis. At Wimbledon, although she first beat Venus Williams and Mirjana Lucic, in her final round she lost to Davenport. Then a hamstring injury at the TIG Tennis Classic in San Diego in August 1999 turned out to be the last straw. At the age of 30, ranked third in the world, Germany’s tennis darling announced her immediate retirement from professional tennis. Steffi Graf would end her career with record total prize winnings of $21,895,277* and a total of 107 titles.
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*Graf held the income record for women’s tennis until Lindsay Davenport exceeded it in January 2008.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- German Sports – Part 1 – Soccer is king! But there are other popular sports in Germany.
- Notable Women – Notable females from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Open by Andre Agassi. Knopf, 2009, hardcover. Graf’s husband has written a very frank and interesting biography about his life and career – and how Steffi’s love and quiet strength helped him become a better person.
- Open by Andre Agassi. Vintage, 2010, paperback. The paperback edition of Agassi’s biography.
- Open by Andre Agassi. The Kindle e-book edition of Agassi’s biography.
- Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self by Monica Seles. Avery, 2010, hardcover. Chronicles Monica’s success on the tennis circuit where, at age sixteen, she became the youngest winner in French Open history. But success had a price. For over two years she struggled with depression and eating disorder after the 1993 knife attack in Hamburg. She frankly discusses her efforts to make a comeback after that.
- Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self by Monica Seles. Avery, 2010, paperback edition.
Unfortunately, there are no current biographies of Steffi Graf in English or German. Below you’ll find some that were written in the 1990s – and that are only available as used books. Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open (above) is a good source of information about his wife. Monica Seles published her autobiography in 2010, which of course covers her encounters with Graf and the knife attack in Germany. (See above.)
- Steffi: Public Power, Private Pain by Sue Heady. Virgin, 1995, hardcover and paperback. Covers her life and career up to 1995.
- Reiche Steffi, armes Kind. Die Akte Graf by Klaus Brinkbäumer, Hans Leyendecker und Heiner Schimmöller. A 1996 German book about the Graf tax scandal: “Rich Steffi, Poor Child: The Graf File”
- Danke, Steffi. Die unvergeßlichen Jahre der Königin des Centre Court by Rolf Hauschild, Hansjörg Falz, Paul Zimmer. In German (“The unforgettable years of the Queen of Centre Court”). Sportverlag, 1999, hardcover.
- Das Mrs. Sporty Konzept – A guide to Graf’s trademarked fitness program designed for the average woman, co-authored by Graf. In German. Wunderlich, 2008, hardcover. (See cover photo above.)
WEB > Steffi Graf – Mrs. Sporty (in English)
GRAF ON THE WEB
- Stefanie Graf – Official Website – www.steffi-graf.net – In English or German.
- SUPERillu magazine: “Heimweh kommt gar nicht erst auf” – Online version of the Graf article in SUPERillu, about her life with Andre – in German. (Oct. 2011)
- The Steffi Graf Foundation – Children for Tomorrow
- Mrs. Sporty – Steffi Graf’s international women’s fitness franchise, explained in English. Locations currently only in Europe.
- Mrs. Sporty – Official Site – English version (UK)
- Teekanne – Graf has been a spokesperson for this German tea shop chain since 2006.
- Steffi Graf Biografie – in German from HDG (Haus der Geschichte, Bonn)
- Steffi Graf – Biografie – in German
- Steffi Graf – WTA – Graf’s career and stats from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA – www.wtatennis.com)
- Warum Steffi Graf nicht bei Beckers Hochzeit war (Die Welt) – Interesting article (2009) about how Boris and Steffi have gone their separate ways (in German).
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