Often known as tennis’s ‘golden girl’, Steffi Graf is the only player to have achieved a Golden Slam – that’s winning all four Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal in a single calendar year. Today, we’re taking a look at her illustrious career as part of our ongoing series of posts about “Sporting Heroes”.
Steffi Graf – From Talented Toddler to Professional Player
Born in 1969, in Mannheim, in what was West Germany, Stefanie Maria Graf was taught to play the sport by her father, Peter, a part-time coach, using a cut-down racquet. According to the Telegraph, “when she made a successful return she would often be rewarded with ice cream and strawberries.”
Steffi, as she was nicknamed, played in her first tournament aged just five and claimed her first competition win when she was six. Two years after that, her father gave up his job selling second-hand vehicles and car insurance to become her full-time coach.
She competed in a number of leading tournaments for juniors, including the Junior Orange Bowl Championship, which she won in 1981. The following year, she left school to concentrate on the sport. She turned professional in October 1982, aged 13 years and four months.
The Road to Winning the Golden Slam
Graf lost her first professional match, against Tracy Austin in Stuttgart, in straight sets (6-4, 6-0), but gradually progressed up through the world rankings, breaking into the top 100 in 1983. In 1984, she reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, where she almost caused an upset, taking the first set from tenth seed, Jo Durie.
Durie eventually won the match (3-6, 6-3, 9-7), but Graf certainly made an impression on spectators. She went on to participate in the Olympic Games, where the sport was one of the demonstration events, and won the women’s competition.
In 1985, she made it to number 6 in the world rankings. The following year, she defeated Chris Evert, in the Family Circle Cup final to claim her first WTA tournament winner’s trophy. She added several more tennis trophies to her cabinet over the course of 1986.
She won her first Grand Slam in 1987, defeating Martina Navratilova in the final of the French Open to claim the title. The two players met in the finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open that year too, although Navratilova had the edge on both occasions. In August 1987, Graf was ranked world number one.
1988 – Steffi Graf’s Golden Year
In 1988, Graf beat Evert in the final of the Australian Open (6-1, 7-6), defeated Natasha Zvereva (6-0, 6-0) in the French Open final and triumphed over Navratilova in a hard-fought Wimbledon final (5–7, 6–2, 6–1). She and Gabriela Sabatini also claimed the Wimbledon women’s doubles title.
Graf went on to complete her calendar Grand Slam with a victory over Sabatini (6-3, 3-6, 6-1) and then headed to Seoul for the Olympic Games, where the two met in the final once more. Graf beat her doubles partner again (6-3, 6-3) to take the gold medal and secure the Golden Slam. The two also joined forces to win the bronze medal in the women’s doubles.
In an interview earlier this year, Graf recalled how receiving the Olympic gold made more of an impression on her than completing her calendar Grand Slam:
“I would say that winning the gold medal meant more at that point to me and I enjoyed it so much more than crazy enough winning the Slam because I was a lot more relaxed,” she said.
Steffi’s Post-Golden Slam Career
Steffi Graf continued to rack up the tournament wins after achieving the Golden Slam. She also held onto the number one ranking for a record-breaking 186 weeks, before losing it to Monica Seles in March 1991. When Seles was forced to take time away from the sport, after being stabbed by one of Graf’s fans in 1993, Steffi became the dominant female player once more. Seles’s number one ranking was preserved while she wasn’t able to play, however.
When Steffi Graf eventually retired, in August 1999, she was still ranked World Number 3 and had won 22 Grand Slam titles. “I have done everything I wanted to do in tennis,” she said, in her retirement announcement.
Is Steffi Graf your sporting hero? What was your favourite moment of her career? Let us know in the comments section.