Steffi Graf – The Greatest Female Tennis Player Ever?

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Debates over who was the best female tennis player of all time abound.  In the men’s game, it is generally recognised that Federer has surpassed all others in the history of the game.In the women’s game, it is not quite so straightforward.If it were a simple matter of career statistics, the exercise would simply be a mathematical one, divorced of sentiment and nuance – simply add up and compare key career stats. Yet, there is more to a player’s greatness than simple career statistics (and indeed, which statistics do you give preferential weight to?).According to any measure (scientific or non-scientific), Steffi Graf has to be considered a contender for the position of ‘Best of All Time’.
Many would accord the position to Serena Williams whose stellar career is still far from over.Many are devotees of Martina Navratilova or Margaret Court and although a dwindling group, many still point to the exploits of 1920’s-30’s star, Helen Wills-Moody, so dominant in her day.Views are formed on the basis of a variety of factors: fact, opinion, sentiment, age, nationality and other factors – even bald, conclusive career stats are hard to budge people from pre-conceived opinions.In this light, let’s examine the career of Steffi Graf.

On the career stats measure, there are few to match Graf.She held 22 Grand Slam singles titles, second only to Margaret Court and in the Open era, a record.Seven of these were Wimbledon titles, six were French, five US Opens and four Australians. Along with Court and Maureen Connolly, she achieved that milestone of milestones: winning a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1988.
She was also the first player ever (man or woman) to hold a Golden Grand Slam – in 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics.Perhaps, her most impressive statistic is that of having held the position of World No. 1 for a record 377 weeks – a staggering seven years – unlikely to be surpassed in our lifetimes.Her versatility is demonstrated by the fact that she is the only person to have won four or more Grand Slams at all four venues.She also achieved the ultimate accolade of being named the best player of the 20th century by a select panel of tennis writers.The fact that Serena came to the fore in the new millennium may challenge Graf’s overall position but does not detract from the accolade.

Graf’s professional career spanned 17 years from 1982 to when she retired in 1999.Interestingly, her career roughly coincided with that of young dynamo, Boris Becker, giving a needed boost to tennis in Germany, a long-time perennial under-achiever in international tennis.

She was the first women player to successfully challenge the  Evert/Navratilova axis at the top of women’s tennis after which a new order dominated by Graf was ushered in.In fact, Graf’s first career title on tour was against Evert in 1986, never losing once to the American in their remaining encounters on tour.

Graf’s great rivals were Navratilova, Sabatini, Hingis, Davenport and Seles, the last of whom eventually managed to edge her out of her dominant position temporarily in the early 1990’s, until a savage knife attack on court led to Seles’ exit from the game for a period, allowing Graf to re-assert her dominance.Towards the end of Graf’s career in the late 1990’s, the baton of World No.1 had eventually been passed to Martina Hingis.

One might say that Graf lacked the range and versatility of a Navratilova or a Serena Williams in not combining her singles talent with an impressive doubles record.That said, most pundits will always look (rightly or wrongly) primarily to a player’s record in singles events in their overall assessments.Maybe, however, a doubles career could have added just that little bit extra to Graf’s career.

What was certain was the concentration, dedication and determination that marked her game from the very beginning, guided and tutored by her  forceful father, Peter.Not always the most popular person, particularly in her early years on tour, owing to a somewhat aloof and serious demeanour, she undoubtedly gained the respect of her fellow tour players by dint of her talent.In her era, she was dominant over such a long period, unequalled by very few in the game.Technically, her game was first-class: a strong forehand, good all-round play, great speed and agility around the court and a steely temperament.

The final big step in her ‘career’ was her marriage to Andre Agassi, the cementing of a pairing between two tennis stars in what has turned out to be a highly productive and stable relationship – both seem to have ‘grown’ through the experience.Celebrity tennis pairings are not that common.One remembers Chris Evert and John Lloyd (briefly) or even Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors (even more briefly!), and Leyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters.Living a relationship in the public eye is never easy, but Graf and Agassi have managed to cope well with the situation.They now perform well the role of tennis’s wise and mature couple.

How do we assess Graf overall in the pantheon of world greats?  Few would argue with her nomination as ‘Best Woman Player of the 20th Century’, barring the most diehard Court and Navratilova supporters.In the way that Laver and Sampras must have found it hard to relinquish claims to ‘the greatest’ to Federer, so too must Graf be eyeing up the evolving career of Serena Williams who gives no indication of wanting to leave her position at the top of the game. 

Williams, while a player of great range and longevity, never had the same overwhelming dominance in the game that Graf had in the 1980’s and 1990’s.Graf, however, never developed a doubles game to match that of Williams.At 15 Grand Slam titles, Williams still lags behind Graf’s 22, but her career is not yet over.  Only the future will hold the answer to that conundrum over Graf/Williams.Graf currently stands on the pedestal and yet, she can now do nothing to resolve that question.The answer to the question resides with Williams.

Paul McElhinney

April 2013

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