x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

All-round career Graf

Martina Navratilova did well on fast courts and Chris Evert on slow, but Steffi Graf won on both surfaces.

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Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week William Johnson looks at tennis' Steffi Graf.

It was a privilege to get close to Steffi Graf at the peak of her record-breaking powers, although on one occasion it was a bit too close for comfort. The outstanding German player - Fraulein Forehand as we called her - had just entered a packed interview room at Wimbledon after administering the most ruthless of lessons to a Canadian opponent called Helen Kelesi on the way to the fifth of her seven singles titles at the All England Club.

Marvelling at the way Graf inflicted the dreaded "double bagel" of 6-0, 6-0 on a third-round rival in barely 40 minutes, I asked: "Is there anything in life that could give you greater satisfaction than a performance like that?" Mischievously, the adorable Steffi pulled back her flowing blonde locks from covering her face and looked down from her raised platform to inquire to the unrestrained amusement of all my peers: "And what did you have in mind?"

Tennis lovers all around the world were similarly captivated by Graf during her all-conquering career which brought her 22 grand slam singles title and 107 tournament victories in total. Billie-Jean King, an illustrious forerunner of Graf at the top of the world ranking and a great admirer of Martina Navratilova, labelled her as "the greatest female tennis player ever" while Navratilova herself commented: "Steffi is the best all-around player of all time, regardless of the surface."

But it was perhaps the opinion of Chris Evert, who shared world dominance with Navratilova before Graf burst on to the scene, which was most pertinent. "Steffi Graf is the best all-around player. Martina won more on fast courts and I won more on slow courts, but Steffi came along and won more titles on both surfaces," the American observed. That massive haul of titles included the Olympics which enabled Graf to complete a unique "Golden Slam" - a nap hand of all majors and the gold medal in Seoul.

Evert had been a witness to the exciting emergence of Graf who had the athletic talent to run 800 metres in 2mins 5secs. The German won her first WTA tournament beating Evert for the first time in seven attempts in the final of the Family Circle Cup at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Graf never lost to Evert again over the next four years. Another former top-ranked American, Tracy Austin, was less complimentary towards Graf after beating the precocious German in her debut event. Austin claimed that "the world was full of teenagers like her".

Graf waited patiently for the chance to respond to that jibe and duly thrashed Austin 6-0, 6-0 when they eventually came up on opposite sides of the net 12 years later. It was a much fiercer rivalry with Monica Seles which made the biggest headlines, however, and not just on the sports pages. The younger Seles, an adopted American from the Serbian part of the old country of Yugoslavia, had announced in defeating Graf in the Australian Open final that she planned to depose her German rival as queen of the sport.

Before that could happen, Seles was stabbed between the shoulder blades during a match in Hamburg by Gunter Parche, a mentally-ill fan of Graf. Parche told police that he committed the attack to help Graf reclaim the World No 1 ranking she had surrendered to Seles. More than two years elapsed before Seles competed again and their personal rivalry was never properly rekindled. Graf had swiftly condemned the attack on Seles as one of the few dark moments in an otherwise glittering career of prolonged success.

Another sad chapter was the gradual deterioration in her relationship with her father Peter, who guarded her fiercely from the sporting world in her formative years but became over-protective as the introvert Steffi came out of her shell. Peter Graf was jailed for income tax fraud in 1995 and the episode was responsible for a dip in Steffi's playing level in the time. His dominance over her also led to accusations that she was anti-social towards other touring players.

Until giving way to Seles, Graf was ranked world No 1 for 186 consecutive weeks which remains a record in the women's game. In total she held the top ranking for 377 weeks which is a record for any tennis player, man or woman. Inflation always devalues earnings records but Graf's career prize money total of US$21,895,277 (Dh80.4 million) stood for nearly a decade from her retirement in 1999 until a year ago when the American Lindsay Davenport finally surpassed it.

During that farewell year, Graf picked up the unexpected bonus of her sixth French Open title, a day before Andre Agassi won the men's final at Roland Garros. The connection was not as obvious as the "love match" between Evert and Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon 15 years earlier, but by the end of that summer a romance was flourishing. Like her career, she has had a successful marriage and family with Agassi with son Jaden Gil and daughter Jaz Elle.

wjohnson@thenational.ae Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Graf is the all-time best, text G42 to 2337. Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday May 15.