That Steffi Graf is one of the greatest tennis players ever is without question. The German star turned professional at the tender age of 13 and would go on to dominate the sport until her retirement.
Her accolades speak for themselves: ranked number 1 for 377 weeks, won 23 Grand Slams across surfaces and a total of 107 career titles. Oh, and the first player to win a Golden Slam.
Before the dominance of the Williams’ sisters, Graf was the woman who carried the torch for women’s tennis. And she did it with some aplomb. No matter the country, no matter the surface – Graf would just keep on winning.
This was something not lost on her rivals, as Chris Evert notably pointed out. “Steffi Graf is the best all-around player. Martina (Navratilova) won more on fast courts and I won more on slow courts, but Steffi came along and won more titles on both surfaces.”
It is little wonder that many consider her the finest women’s tennis player of the 20th century. But of course, every future champion has to start from the bottom.
It’s just that in Graf’s case, she began her career much earlier than most. This in turn meant she was exposed to the pressure and rigours of life on the tour from a much younger age.
But it didn’t matter because she became one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Interestingly, it has now been 39 years since she made her professional debut in the sport. Let us now look back at the start of Graf’s journey to the top.
Graf, like most other successful pros, took to the game at a young age. She began learning how to swing a wooden rocket inside her house when she was just three years old.
Her first coach was her father, who himself was an aspiring tennis coach and wanted his daughter to start early. By the age of four, she was practicing on the court. One year later, she was playing in tournaments.
Her talent was evident even back then; Graf would claim the winner’s medals at tournaments in her age groups with startling regularity.
She would also go on to win the European Championships 12s and 18s in 1982. And soon after those triumphs, she turned professional – at the age of 13, no less.
The tournament she made her debut in took place at Filderstadt, Germany. And her first round opponent was a Grand Slam winner in American Tracy Austin.
Austin, it must be noted, was also in the early days of her career at the time. However, the American was 19 years old and well ahead in her career progression than Graf at that point. She had even won the US Open three years prior.
As such, absolutely no one expected to see Graf win that match on that particular day. And it is perhaps little surprise that Austin ran out the winner on that day.
She won their match 6-4, 6-0 and few if any realised they had witnessed the start of a legendary career. Least of all Austin, who said a few interesting things when the match came to a close.
After the match, Austin went on to make a statement that she till date probably regrets. She said that there were hundreds of players like Steffi Graf back in America. In essence, she downplayed the skills of the teenage debutant.
Except, as hindsight proved with pomp and circumstance, there was absolutely no one like Graf.
Four years into her career, she would claim her maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros. And thus began the cycle of domination by the German great.
1988 brought the aforementioned Golden Slam; not only did she win all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year, she won the Olympic women’s singles gold medal too.
It says a lot that it took 23 years for another player(s) to accomplish this same feat. But it wasn’t just her dedication to winning that made her an icon the world over.
Graf’s tennis game was such that no surface was a challenge. She possessed the footwork, stamina and endurance to grind out wins on clay courts, even though by her own admission clay was her least favourite surface to play on.
She preferred playing on grass and it is easy to understand why. Her naturally aggressive style of play and the way she moved on court made her game perfectly suited for the speedy nature of grass tracks.
Injuries would eventually see her career end a few years before it probably should have. But the weight of her accomplishments mean she is remembered fondly even to this day.
And to think it all started with a straight sets loss as a 13-year-old.