August 13, 1999: Steffi Graf retires

Two months after her French Open victory over Martina Hingis and one month after her loss to Lindsay Davenport in the 1999 Wimbledon final, 22-time Grand Slam champion Steffi Graf announces her retirement.

Boris Becker is playing golf with Franz Beckenbauer when he learns the news. Read what Boris Becker had to say about Steffi in his autobiography, The Player:

‘Steffi has retired’. So, Steffi as well. It’s Friday 13 August 1999, six weeks after my Wimbledon farewell. Officially she played 994 professional matches; I played 932. She won twenty-two Grand Slams; I won six. If the friendship between Steffi and me turned into a book or a film, nobody would believe it. She was six and I was eight when we met for the first time.

I rode my bike to Leimen. She came with her mother. In those days I often had to play against girls, which felt like a kind of punishment, especially when then older boys – who later wouldn’t have stood a change against Steffi – used to say, ‘Look at the redhead, fighting it out with the little girl!’ It also got on my nerves when the coach, Boris Breskvar, ended the game just at the moment when I was set for victory. My mother conforted me: ‘He really doesn’t know how to handle children.’

Even as a child, Steffi was focused and introverted, and sometimes trained like a robot. Thanks to these supposedly typical German characteristics, it took quite a long time for her to become internationally popular, rather like Michael Schumacher in Formula 1, who always comes across as so brusque – as though all he’s missing is the spiked helmet. Steffi was too determined for some people’s liking – too correct, too cool, too ‘Made in Germany’. Her sign is Gemini. Perfection is in her nature. That’s how she did her job. On the other hand, she’s an extremely sensitive and compassionate person. This shows every now and then, but for a long time she didn’t really live out her emotions. The most important thing for her was tennis success, and that’s why she worked like a machine. It was much the same in my case, but from time to time other things mattered to me. She probably told herself: To hell with my feelings, what I want now is to win Wimbledon for the eight time.

The tax scandals concerning her father, the court case and his imprisonment took their toll on Steffi. I believe this also changed her way of dealing with her feelings. Steffi cried, and the people at home in front of the television cried with her. At last, something came from the heart, and the nation took her into its embrace.

We’ve been comrades in arms over the years. We didn’t have to explain to each other about the pressure we were both under. We’ve always been in the same boat, from Brühl and Leimen to Wimbledon and back.

As a woman she fascinated me. It wasn’t the infantile falling-in-love of a teenager that made me want to get to know Steffi better. It was a deep feeling of affection, an unexpressed understanding between like-minded people who shared the same fate. And, naturally, I was curious about her too: where did she get the power, the motivation, the inspiration that made her so successful? What had she got that I hadn’t? And we all know that success is sexy – not to mention Steffi’s legs! The Steffi I got to know was an exciting person, not in the least shallow, with a sombre side and a lively side. These weren’t visible in the tennis player. Early on, she moved to Florida, and took an appartment in the heart of New York’s SoHo. Black has always been her favorite colour, and she’s always had a weakness for expensive clothes. According to media reports, she had a relationship with Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. These things don’t really fit the image of the Tennis Duchess (Graf means Duke) from Brühl, and Steffi was clever enough to keep this side of her life from the public. I didn’t succeed in this endeavour, but then maybe I didn’t want to.[…]

A little later I called Steffi. She was relaxed and happy. I congratulated her on her career and on making this decision at the right moment. We both knew what retiring felt like. I had no idea of her new love, Andre Agassi; she didn’t mention him at all. But I wasn’t surprised when I did learn of it. I knew that Agassi had had a crush on Steffi for some time, but first he had to get over the break-up with Brooke Shields, and Steffi had to get used tothe end of her career. Now they are tennis’ dream couple. Their son Jaden Gil is already seen by the British bookies as a potential Wimbledon winner. Maybe he’ll play Elias in the final one day.

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