Born 13 June 1969 in Mannheim (Germany)
For Steffi Graf, it all got off to an unheralded start, at 9.30 am on a Monday morning in 1983. In front of just a handful of spectators around Court No.6, the European junior champion, aged just 13 at the time, played her first ever match at Roland-Garros defeating Sweden’s Carina Carlsson in the process. Le Quotidien – the Roland-Garros daily programme – wrote that the teenager may have been slight of build but certainly looked like "a big star of the future". That prediction would turn out to be alarmingly accurate! In the modern era, no other woman has had such a close relationship with Roland-Garros, even if she did end up one title short of Chris Evert’s record of seven. Graf wrote her name in every chapter of the record book (achieving a calendar Grand Slam the year she turned 18), but her greatest tennis-based love story was with Paris. The relationship lasted 17 seasons, stretching over 94 matches (a record) and 84 wins (also a record), and featuring unforgettable semi-finals and finals where she regularly seemed to be able to turn the tide mid-match.
In 1987, the year of her first title, she had both Gabriela Sabatini in the semi-final and Martina Navratilova in the final serving for the match! This was also the case with Arantxa Sanchez in 1996 – indeed, the Spaniard had two bites at the cherry before the German came back to win the longest women’s final in the history of the tournament (3 hours and 4 minutes) – and Martina Hingis in 1999. The Swiss Miss could have finished the match off at 6-4, 5-4, but the German, who was just a few days from retiring and had not won a major in three years, again managed to turn the tables in a final (4-6, 7-5, 6-2). Hingis ended up losing her composure and serving underarm as the match wore on, and ended it in a flood of tears. The encounter remains, however, one the most exciting women’s matches ever seen.
This is not to say that Graf, whose graceful movement around the court seemed to improve ever more as the years went on, never had things all her own way in finals. In 1988, it took her just 34 minutes to double-bagel Natasha Zvereva (6-0, 6-0) in between two rain delays. Curiously, she also suffered two of her most painful defeats in Paris (against Sanchez in the final in 1989, 7-5 in the decider, and Monica Seles, also in the final, in 1992 – 10-8 in the third). She also recorded the heaviest loss of her career, when Sanchez (her nemesis on the French clay) took her to pieces in 1991, recording a 6-0, 6-2 semi-final success. Graf hung up her racquet in 1999, shortly after her 22nd Grand Slam title, and went on to marry the winner of that year’s French Open men’s title, Andre Agassi. To mark her retirement, Roland-Garros engraved her playing record on the door of her locker, No.19, and gave it to her as a gift. And to illustrate just how irreplaceable Graf is, the tournament locker room now has an 18b, but no No.19…
Steffi Graf’s record at Roland-Garros:
• 84 wins, 10 defeats (a record for the number of matches played and won).
• Six titles (1987, 1988, 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1999) and three finals (1989, 1990 and 1992). Steffi Graf also won the Australian Open four times (1988, 1989, 1990 and 1994), Wimbledon seven times (1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1996), and the US Open five times (1988, 1989, 1993, 1995 and 1996).
• 16 participations (the first in 1983 at the age of 13, the last in 1999, the year of her sixth title).
• 56 matches played on Centre Court (the first in 1985 against Bettina Bunge).
• Notable wins over Gabriela Sabatini (semi-finals in 1987 and 1988), Martina Navratilova (1987 final), Monica Seles (semi-finals in 1989 and 1999), Arantxa Sanchez (semi-final in 1992, 1996 final) and Martina Hingis (1999 final).