Since most people, writers included, have long ago run out of superlatives for her, Steffi Graf helped everybody out here Saturday, shortly after she had won the Olympic gold medal in women’s singles.
“I’m very excited that I achieved this now,” she said. “It is something that not many people after me will be able to achieve, I think. It is amazing.”
Amazing, indeed, Super Fraulein.
Her 6-3, 6-3 blitz of Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina in the Olympic final, before a full house of 9,773 at Olympic Stadium should go down in sports record books as a major achievement.
At 19, Graf has won the Grand Slam of tennis, taking titles in the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open this year. Then she added the Olympic gold medal in the same year. The only other woman to win a Grand Slam was Margaret Court of Australia, and when she did it, in 1970, tennis wasn’t in the Olympics, nor was it an Olympic year. So not only has Graf been blessed with talent like few before her, she has also been blessed with great timing.
But with Graf, timing hasn’t been everything. She is a product of a father who has driven her to excellence, while staying by her side.
Dennis Klein, a free-lance photographer who has followed her, talked Friday about his days with the Grafs. He said that Graf was programmed, in all the positive ways, for her current success.
“I was there when she won her first tournament,” said Klein. “I can remember it like it was yesterday. She was 4 1/2 years old, and when she won the tournament and I photographed her afterward, the trophy was about 6 inches taller than she was.”
Klein said that, from the moment Graf could walk, her father, Peter Graf, had her out on the tennis courts. He had been a player himself, and his daughter was going to learn the game his way, Klein said.
“I was there when she played in her first pro tournament,” Klein said. “It was in Stuttgart, and she was either 11 or had just turned 12. She played Tracy Austin in the first round, and that was when Tracy Austin was at the top of her game, maybe the best in the world.
“Well, Steffi lost, but it was close. Either a close two sets or it went to a third. And I remember it so well, because afterward, she was so angry about losing. There was none of this stuff about feeling good for a good match against one of the top players in the world. She thought she should have won.
“A week or so later, I took her some of the pictures from that match. She was nice and everything when I gave them to her, but when I walked away a little distance and she didn’t think I was looking, she tore the pictures up.”
That kind of competitive drive remains to this day. Perhaps it burns even hotter. In her press conference after beating Sabatini, she was asked about playing here for no money.
“I don’t think about the money,” she said. “I wanted to win the gold medal. I care more about winning than about making money.”
To Vince Lombardi and Steffi Graf then, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. And winning she has done. Her current streak is 40 matches. Her record this year is 66-2. The last time she lost was in April, to Sabatini, at Amelia Island, Fla. Her other loss this year was also to Sabatini.
Graf played the final here Saturday like she remembered both.
She actually suffered a service break at 2-2 of the first set. But she quickly broke back, almost as if to demonstrate to Sabatini that she should harbor no illusions of grandeur. On break point with Sabatini serving at 3-2, Graf took the Argentine’s second serve and rammed it past Sabatini’s forehand along the baseline so fast that Sabatini barely had time to lunge.
Then Graf held at love in a game that took less than a minute, broke Sabatini at 15-40 in the next game and efficiently served out the first set at 6-3.
From the time she got to deuce on Sabatini’s serve at 3-2 until she won the first set, Graf ran off 9 points in a row and 13 of the last 15.
In the second set, Graf broke Sabatini at 2-2 by taking a second serve on break point, whipping it to her opponent’s forehand side, then jumping on the return for a shot to Sabatini’s backhand corner. At this point, Sabatini went into a sulk that continued well into the medal ceremony.
“After the first couple of games, I was feeling quite well,” Graf said. “Then, when I got to 5-3 of the first set, I knew I had it. I was trying early to let her (make her) run. That was my plan. I didn’t think she could keep it up all the way.”
Graf said later that she would fly back to West Germany, play some exhibitions and probably take some time off. She also said that, having accomplished what she has this year, she plans on just trying to do more of the same next year.
“I enjoy playing tennis,” she said. “I know I’ve played a lot, but I have no motivation problems to play more.”
That’s amazing, too.