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Graf Passes Test to Gauge the Best

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All right, who’s next? Greg Maddux? Cal Ripken? Jeff Gordon? Only 20 weeks for all you creme-de-la-creme athletes to retire before the end of the 1900s. Hurry, don’t be the last one. At this point, we might as well get all of you out of the way and start fresh in 2000.

Steffi Graf stepped into the retirement lounge Friday, joining Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, John Elway and (for now) Barry Sanders among those who stepped off the stage this year.

It’s only fitting that she keeps that company in the timing of her retirement, because those are the only caliber of players whose careers deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Graf’s. It’s an elite circle. To join you have to present a strong case as the best to ever have played a sport or a position, and the cases don’t get much stronger than Graf’s.

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The abridged summary of her career shows 22 Grand Slam singles titles, 377 weeks as the top-ranked player on the WTA Tour. She played more than 1,000 matches and won 87% of them, and 107 tournament championships.

Her overpowering forehand ranks among the greatest weapons ever unleashed on women’s tennis. Then she had that slice backhand, which was like a devilish changeup for a pitcher with a 100-mph fastball.

There won’t be an unabashed outpouring of affection for Graf from her peers, in part because she usually held what everyone else wanted, in part because she didn’t always reach out to all of them. Monica Seles didn’t think Graf did enough to make her feel better after that psycho Graf fan stabbed Seles in 1993. And Graf was the only former No. 1 player not to offer congratulations to Lindsay Davenport when Davenport achieved that distinction last year.

But there will be universal respect for Graf’s accomplishments from anyone who ever picked up a racket or watched her play. There really is no choice.

“Tremendous respect,” former tennis star-turned-commentator Tracy Austin said. “Because of what she’s brought to the game, her endurance, 17 years out there at a high level every time that she played.”

I would come right out and say she’s the greatest ever, except Bud Collins graced us with his presence in the media tent at the Acura Classic in Manhattan Beach on Friday, and I have to defer to his vast knowledge on all things tennis. He’s not so quick to install Graf atop the all-time list, thinking that Martina Navratilova might deserve to be called the queen of women’s tennis.

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Nevertheless, Graf is one of the few women who could wear the crown and not be called a fraud.

The real testament to her complete dominance of the sport was in our heads. At the peak of her career, when everything was right with her mind and body, there were stretches when it was almost impossible to imagine Graf losing. You knew that, in theory, the chance existed. But you regarded it in the same likelihood as other improbable events--snow falling in Laguna Beach, an asteroid striking Earth.

For long stretches of her career she was too good for the competition, and in all likelihood too good for the health of the sport.

She held the No. 1 ranking from Aug. 17, 1987, through March 10, 1991, and she stamped out victories in machine-like fashion. At one point, she won nine of 10 Grand Slam events. She went 86-2 in 1989. Bored sports fans turned their attention elsewhere. The outcome in women’s tennis was too predictable.

But whenever Graf was pushed, she responded. Seles rose to prominence in 1990, overtook Graf atop the rankings in ’91 and they dueled back and forth until the stabbing of Seles. In the six matches they played in Seles’ top years, 1990-92, each won three.

The final test of athletic greatness is the ability to overcome adversity, and Graf prevailed on that front as well.

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Graf played through injuries. She played through the turmoil created by her father’s scandalous behavior. And she kept winning. Right up until this year’s French Open, where she beat a teenage Martina Hingis, who had claimed Graf was getting too old to keep up with the younger set.

There’s a special place in my sports memory vault for Graf, because she took part in one of the best sporting events I’ve ever seen.

It also happened to be one of the great matches in women’s tennis history: the 1995 Wimbledon final against Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. The grass court favored Graf, but Sanchez-Vicario put up a brave fight and brought the match to a 5-5 tie in the third set.

With Sanchez-Vicario serving, they battled for 20 minutes in the 11th game. They went to deuce 13 times, neither willing to submit.

At some point it became obvious that whoever won that game would win the match. To no one’s surprise, not even her opponent’s, Graf came out on top.

“When you’re No. 1, you have that extra,” Sanchez-Vicario said Friday. “It helps you to win when you need to.”

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Graf had it.

Sanchez-Vicario was asked to summarize Graf in one word, and found that to be an easy assignment:

“Champion.”

Austin helped to paint the rest of the picture.

“The mental toughness puts her right up there with the Michael Jordans and the Wayne Gretzkys and the John Elways,” Austin said. “Just the top, top of their sport forever.”

And now they’re all gone.

“What are they doing to us?” Austin asked.

It’s a question we’ve asked often this year. Maybe we need to look at what they already have done for us. In Graf’s case, for those who could appreciate the beauty in her monotonous efficiency, it was considerable.

The women’s game is much healthier now that there isn’t such a dramatic difference between No. 1 and the rest of the top five players. You just can’t say it’s better off without the example of tennis excellence set by Steffi Graf.

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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