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an interview with Steffi Graf
Last Updated: December 30, 2008 10:47 AM
As Seen In TENNIS: An Interview with Steffi Graf
By Jon Levey
The numbers are staggering. Twenty-two Grand Slam singles titles. Records for total weeks (377) and years (8) at No. 1. Yet Steffi Graf ’s most remarkable achievement happened when she was still a teenager. In 1988, she won all four majors and followed that with a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics. Twenty years later and nine years removed from retirement, Graf, 39, looks fit enough to trade forehands on the pro tour. German born and raised, she now lives in Las Vegas with her husband, Andre Agassi, and their two children, Jaden, 7, and Jaz, 5. TENNIS recently caught up with Graf in her adopted hometown to get her thoughts on her historic feat and life after tennis.
It’s the 20th anniversary of your “Golden Slam,” something no other player has accomplished. When you look back on 1988, is there any match or memory that comes to mind?
There are a lot of memories. It would be tough to point out a specific one. I obviously had an incredible start to the year. Playing so well in the Australian Open and the same with Paris. The toughest part was going into the U.S. Open with everyone talking about the possibility of it. I was trying to defer the pressure by saying I wasn’t thinking about it, but everybody is talking about it and you get questions left and right. At the time I’m 19 years old so I try to get away from the pressure and just concentrate match by match. Then stepping on the court the day of the final against Gabriela Sabatini, it was pretty overwhelming at that point. And we get in a real fight, an on-court battle, and it was physically and emotionally so demanding that I started cramping toward the middle of the third set. And I remember at match point it literally felt like I put everything into it. I finished a shot and I was done. I don’t think I could’ve played another point. I was overwhelmed, but, strangely enough, in a way relieved that it was over at that point. As much as I should have been excited, I was just drained.
At the start of the year you were just 18 and had won only one Slam. Did you have any notion that you could accomplish what you accomplished?
At that time you’re pretty naïve about the possibilities. You hear about the history of tennis and what other people have achieved and stats and numbers, but they don’t become real at that age. It’s tough. Talking about the surfaces, the circumstances of life, and the things that happen. Emotionally and physically, four different times a year at the highest level, which you have to be in order to win the Grand Slams. That’s a difficult task, and when you’re younger I guess you’re more ready for it.
You mentioned the final against Sabatini. The two of you had some great matches that year. Did you see her as your biggest obstacle to winning the Golden Slam?
We had a great rivalry over many years. Especially that time and the following two, three years. [But] if I would look at it I would say the most difficult player would be Martina Navratilova. For me grass courts were the most unusual surface. I had only played a few times to that point at Wimbledon, so that was the one I felt, especially with Martina being so strong, would be my most difficult tournament to play, and the most dangerous for me in terms of different players that have the serve-volley game.
Unlike Beijing this year, the Seoul Olympics in ’88 were played after the U.S. Open. What do you recall from that experience?
I had to actually leave that same night [after winning the Open] to go back to Germany because we had to get to the Olympics a day later. I remember getting to the airport and taking a flight full of athletes. I looked up to all of them in track and field. I loved the 800 meters. When we arrived I went to where the 800-meter guys were training. And I’m literally coming off being physically exhausted, plus the flight to Europe and then to South Korea the next day. And I decided to sprint with them. It was so much fun. I couldn’t really do anything for a few days after that. But it was so much fun to go to the different sports. I got the biggest kick out of being a part of the Olympic team and the village.
Did winning the gold medal measure up to your other achievements that year?
No, it didn’t. It was special, but if I look at what means more to me, it was winning the Slams. That is our sport. Four times a year you have to be at your best for two weeks.
Who would you say was the toughest opponent, and who do you think was the most talented?
Most difficult player, toughest to play against, Monica Seles. Just a fierce fighter. Doesn’t let up the whole match. Not where you can feel like if you stay with her for a certain amount of time [you know you’ll get your looks]. With her you knew the intensity was high, her ball-striking immense, the power she had, the left-handed serve. She had, for me, overall the toughest game. Talentwise I look at [Venus and Serena] Williams and just the possibilities with their physical abilities and their court coverage and athleticism. I think they would’ve had the most potential of being the best players out there.
But you don’t think they’ve reached that potential?
At times. They just haven’t shown the consistency. You look at someone like Navratilova who worked on every aspect of her game and her physical side. Or a Justine Henin who literally [used] every talent and everything she [had]. [The Williams sisters] have not gotten to the point where they could.
If you were still competing today how do you think you would do?
It doesn’t matter [laughs]. It’s one thing I don’t have to worry about.
Since you’ve retired there hasn’t been a consistent, dominant champion on the women’s tour. Why do you think that’s been the case?
I think just the game in general has so many more top players. The field has gotten a lot stronger, wider. That makes it always tough on the top players. Tough to be consistently on top of the game. You have the Williams sisters, you have Maria Sharapova, and all the Russian players, there are so many great players out there.
Speaking of dominance, last fall Roger Federer passed your record of 186 consecutive weeks at No. 1. Did that register with you at all?
To be honest, I just heard it for the first time [laughs]. I’m not following those things too much.
Many great athletes struggle with life postretirement. It doesn’t seem to have been a problem for you.
How were you able to make the transition?
I always felt that tennis was part of my life, but it wasn’t all of my life. I felt like I always had enough hobbies and other interests that I was pretty excited for the time after tennis. I gave it [my] all during this period of my career and I think that helped me step away from it. But also I felt really ready for different things in my life. Also when you look at my last few years with the injuries and the struggles physically I had in order to be able to play . . . . The therapy and the constant attention towards it made it difficult to play. So I can say that I was really looking forward to that period and it’s been all that and more.
You have a lot of off-court projects now, including a furniture line with Kreiss and a Louis Vuitton advertising campaign. How do you go about picking the ones you’re going to pursue?
The best thing that tennis gave me has been my family. But second is the luxury to be able to pick and choose what to do with my time. I’ve been really fortunate with some incredible projects. Traveling the world, going to museums, seeing art exhibits, or [seeing] different cultures and architecture, I’m able to pull all these experiences into [my projects]. I think it’s literally been a luxury for me to say these things are what I want to spend time with.
Another project you’re doing is Airflow, Head’s line of women’s racquets. How did this come about and how much of the development process are you involved in?
Kevin [Kempin, Head’s vice president of sales and marketing] came to me about two years back and it’s been quite a process. We constantly talk on the phone and meet a few times a year on the updates of the different models. Nobody has really looked at it from the perspective that Head has. We are able, I think, to do something for women’s tennis and make it a little easier for some women to play.
When you were younger and you thought about the end of your career, did you ever envision that you’d be living in Las Vegas?
No. No. [laughs] I literally had no idea where I was going to live. I just felt that I’ve been able to see so much of the world that I wanted to explore that more. Now living with two kids, and another great thing is my mom lives here, and so does my brother with his four kids. Andre, you know, [was] born and raised here, so we have such a tight-knit family and friend circuit. I feel very blessed.
What do you miss most about Germany?
Obviously with most of your family here that’s not going to draw you back there. To me where family is, that’s kind of where home is. But I get to spend quite a few times a year in Germany. I still have my foundation [Children for Tomorrow] back in Germany. I still have different businesses and some of the family there and a lot of my friends. So there is a lot of incentive to go a few times a year.
You mentioned your kids, Jaden and Jaz. Do you want them to go into tennis?
To us it’s that they dedicate themselves to something that they enjoy, whatever it is. We will try to introduce them to different sports. We’ve tried soccer, but it wasn’t quite [right]. Now Jaden is looking into baseball. We truly had the best time last winter going snowboarding and skiing, so everybody is really enjoying the winter sports. But tennis, you know, they play a little bit. And if it would be only a little bit, I wouldn’t mind it too much.