During her 17 years as a professional tennis player, Steffi Graf won 22 grand slams, more than 100 WTA singles titles and an Olympic gold medal. As icy cool in her personal life as in her game, for years she had only had one focus: tennis. But now retired, she has found love, motherhood and married life with with fellow athlete Andre Agassi. It seems the tennis star who once said, "Nothing gives me those highs like playing tennis does," has found a new kind of happiness off the courts.
Stefanie Maria Graf was born on June 14, 1969, to Peter and Heidi Graf in Mannheim, Germany. Her father supported the family by selling cars and insurance and took up coaching tennis to earn some extra income. After Steffi revealed an interest in the game, Peter gave her a wooden racket and the two began hitting a ball around the living room. She progressed quickly, playing her first tournament aged five it proved a frustrating experience, however, and she left the court in tears after being defeated.
Undiscouraged, Steffi went on to win the junior tournament the following year, displaying the determination that was to become her hallmark. Supremely talented, by the time she was eight she was committed to the sport, training with her father in the early hours of the morning before heading off to school.
Driven by her love of tennis she quit school and joined the professional circuit in 1982. With her father taking care of schedules, coaches and finances, Steffi was free to concentrate solely on her game. Peter Graf admitted that his biggest challenge during those early years was preventing his daughter at 13 years and four months, the second youngest player to receive a WTA ranking from burning herself out.
Steffi won her first grand slam aged 17, and trumped the victory a year later by winning the "golden slam" four grand slams plus an Olympic gold medal. Yet in 1990 her career was almost derailed when her father was jailed for tax evasion. Steffi who once said, "I owe everything to my father" was devastated. She later reflected, "I was thinking of quitting everything. Leaving Germany, tennis, everything." But Steffi lived for the game and, despite the traumas of her family life, she managed to carry on.
From 1987 through the mid-Nineties, Steffi's tennis could not be faulted. Known for her steady demeanour and perfectionism, she maintained the number one title for 377 weeks over the course of her career a world record and became the highest-earning female athlete of all time. However, after knee surgery cost her eight months of recuperation in 1997, the champion tennis player struggled to regain her form, dropping out of the rankings for the first time since 1983. And just when Steffi seemed back on track, landing another grand slam in Paris in 1999, she abruptly announced her retirement from tennis.
After being defeated at Wimbledon that year, Steffi realized that her love for the game had diminished. "For the first time I missed the joy of playing tennis. It was a strange feeling which I had never experienced before," she revealed. Saying she felt she had no more to accomplish, the champion left the sport with "no regrets" about her decision. Since her retirement, the former child prodigy has concentrated on her charitable foundation, Children For Tomorrow, and her sports management company.
During her career, Steffi's love life was kept low profile. She had only been linked to a few men, among them tennis player Alex Mronz and Formula One driver Michael Bartels. "Most girls only think of boys, but I think only of tennis," she once said.
Falling in love with fellow tennis star Andre Agassi, brought her the best of both worlds, however. "Andre has made my life so exciting and shown me what I was missing," she says. "I had so many incredible highs during my career, but this is the happiest I've ever been." The two wed on October 22, 2001, in Las Vegas. Four days later Steffi gave birth to their first child, Jaden Gil followed, in 2003, by a little girl, Jaz Elle. At last it seems that Steffi has met her match.