Steffi Graf is one of the few players who majorly contributed to the widespread popularity of tennis across the globe. Steffi’s monumental success combined with her aggressive approach helped develop the style of play which is dominant in the modern game. Graf was one of the few players who became bigger than the sport as the entire world stood still to watch the German legend play. Without a shadow of a doubt, she will always be regarded as one of the best ever players in tennis history.
It is hard to believe that Graf was a mere 13-year-old at the start of her first full professional year in 1983. Being dubbed as the next best thing, the German had to patiently wait for her turn. Despite showing a lot of promise, she had to wait till 1986 to win her maiden WTA tournament at the Family Circle Cup in South Carolina. But Steffi’s major breakthrough came a year later. Graf defeated the then World No.1 Martina Navratilova to clinch the French Open title.
There has never been a better year in the tennis history for a player than the one Graf enjoyed in 1988. She started the year by winning the Australian Open without losing a set during the tournament. Graf then successfully defended her French Open title in emphatic fashion, thrashing Natasha Zvereva 6–0, 6–0 in a 34-minute final to register one of the shortest-ever Grand Slam finals.
Wimbledon was next! Facing the undisputed champion Navratilova, who had won six straight titles in the grass court, Steffi came from a set down to win the trophy. She also won her only Grand Slam doubles title at Wimbledon while teaming up with Gabriela Sabatini. Graf then defeated Sabatini to bag the US Open title. The milestone was earlier achieved by only two other women, Maureen Connolly Brinker in 1953 and Margaret Court in 1970.
Her exceptional year was not over by any stretch of the imagination. At the Olympic Games in Seoul, Graf beat Sabatini to bag the Gold medal. It was then dubbed by the media as the “Golden Slam”. Her incredible accomplishment is yet to be beaten by any other player. Not to mention she also bagged the women’s doubles Bronze medal in Seoul.
In total, she went on to win 22 Grand Slam singles titles. Only two other players Serena Williams (23) and Margaret Court (24) have more Grand Slams than her. Graf also held on to the World No. 1 ranking for a record 377 weeks. No doubt, Steffi will be fondly remembered for her Grand Slam victories and her “Golden Slam” year.
But, her biggest accomplishment was the athletic ability and aggressive style which helped her become one of the most versatile players in the game’s history. She developed an attacking style of play, which exists predominantly in today’s game. The sport and its fans will forever be grateful to Graf for that.