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Steffi Graf Was the Ultimate Athlete

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LONDON (AP) -- It is one of the most enduring images in tennis:
Steffi Graf, both feet off the ground, pounding a forehand winner.

As predictable as it was devastating, Graf's signature shot
ruled the sport for nearly two decades. From the time she turned
pro in 1982 at the age of 13 until her retirement Friday at the age
of 30, Graf played the same way.

Others may have hit the ball harder, served faster or volleyed
better, but Graf didn't need to change.

She was simply a better athlete than everyone else.

Graf bridged three generations of women's tennis, eclipsing
Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in the 1980s, battling for
supremacy with Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the
early and mid-1990s, and fighting off the teen vanguard of Martina
Hingis and Co. in the late '90s.

Graf's handicap was her health. Sinus problems, allergies, foot,
leg, wrist and back injuries.

It was almost fitting that the final match of her career ended
with an injury. She was forced to retire from a second-round match
against Amy Frazier at the TIG Classic in Carlsbad, Calif., after
straining her left hamstring.

If it hadn't been for her perpetual ailments, who knows how many
more titles Graf would have won? With 22 Grand Slam victories, she
was only two shy of Margaret Court's career record.

Graf excelled on all surfaces -- clay, hard courts, grass and
indoor carpet. Even though she was not a natural grass-court
player, she won Wimbledon seven times thanks to her court speed,
strong serve, trademark forehand and even an occasional volley.

On any surface, Graf preferred to play from the baseline. She
could control a match with one shot, dictating rallies with her
whippet forehand. Hopping at the baseline, slightly pigeon-toed,
she would lift off the ground, lean into the shot and slam the ball
past her opponent.

If Graf had a weakness, it was her backhand. She preferred to
slice the ball, a defensive shot to keep the ball in play, rather
than use the more offensive topspin. But her backhand was still
consistent and effective enough to help her beat most players.

What set Graf apart was her athleticism. At 5-foot-9 and 132
pounds, she was sleek and built like a sprinter. She ran like one,
too, and Navratilova was among those who said Graf could have been
an Olympic 400-meter champion had she not chosen to play tennis.

Graf rarely showed emotion on or off the court. In recent years,
when she hit a big shot, she'd pump her fist and shout like other
players. But mostly, she stayed within herself.

In interviews and news conferences, Graf rarely opened up. But
when she let her blond hair spill down over her shoulders, and
smiled or laughed, she could light up a room.

Reserved and sometimes aloof, she shunned the trappings of fame
and resented media interest in her private life and that of her
father, Peter, who was jailed for evading taxes on her income.

Graf once spoke of how she loved playing in a minor tournament
in Brighton, England, because she could stroll along the seaside by
herself and pop into shops without anyone noticing her.

In typical fashion, after her loss to Lindsay Davenport in the
Wimbledon final last month, knowing she would not be back again,
Graf walked off Center Court without so much as a wave to the fans.

Maybe that's why the public never warmed to Graf the way they
did to other champions. At Wimbledon, Graf never enjoyed the
popularity of fellow German Boris Becker, who loved to show his
emotions.

Even if Graf wasn't the most charismatic personality in the
game, she was certainly the best player of her era and, many would
say, the greatest of all time.

(Copyright 1999 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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