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As Hall of Fame Beckons, Retired Graf Seems Content

Times Staff Writer

One of the rare times that the busy, often sleepless mother of two young children slows down happens to be during one of her husband’s tennis matches. Then, her mental agony unfolds.

So, is it harder to watch tennis or play in big matches?

“Oh, you’re talking about watching whom?” said Steffi Graf, joking. “I’m a very active person and I want to control things, and I can’t. So in a sense, it’s harder watching.”

A relaxed and reflective Graf was speaking about her husband, tennis star Andre Agassi. Since retiring from tennis in 1999, Graf has rarely spoken to the media at any great length. Wednesday’s conference call was thought to be her first extensive interview with American print reporters since her retirement.

But this was something particularly special. On July 11, Graf, a winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, will be given another title: Hall of Famer. Graf, along with Stefan Edberg and Dodo Cheney, will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, R.I.

“It’s like a dream come true to be recognized for what you’ve done in your career by the Hall of Fame. It’s incredible.... It’s going to be such a privilege to be part of it,” Graf said.

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Graf, who will turn 35 on June 14, won 107 WTA titles and the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She won Wimbledon seven times, and in 1988, completed the calendar Grand Slam, winning all four majors.

She was 19 when she won the final leg, at the U.S. Open. Graf spoke about that exhausting process -- which was called a Golden Slam after she later won in Seoul.

“I was aware and the pressure was on, but if I can say anything, I wish it would have been later, so I could have enjoyed it more,” Graf said. “In a way, I feel like as young as I was, that it helped me, but in another sense, it didn’t help me to maybe enjoy it as much.”

Additionally, Graf emphatically closed the door on making any sort of tennis comeback, talked about a variety of issues involving her career, spoke about Agassi and her children and expressed admiration for the current No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, whom she recently met in Orlando, Fla.

* On whether she may have been at her best in 1995-1996: “I think as a player, I was much more complete. That’s a big thanks to Heinz Gunthardt, who elevated my game and strategies to another level, and to make me a smarter player on the court, for sure, I feel like that I was a better player then.”

* On her most satisfying accomplishments and biggest disappointments: “I still have to say, the first Wimbledon was really, really big for me, just because that tournament, from when I grew up watching it, it just meant most to me. So my first Wimbledon, and honestly, every single one was so special, as well as topping off the ’99 French Open.

“One of the toughest losses, I think I’ve had two really tough ones. The one that will sound really weird, one was in Tokyo against Gabriela Sabatini in the finals.... That was a match that I lost 7-6 in the third, and that was ’90, ’91, and that stuck with me quite a bit. I think that’s the one and only time that I ever disappeared after a match and didn’t do a press conference.

” ... The other loss was against Monica Seles in Paris [in 1992]. I lost 10-8 in the third set.”

* On the chances of playing mixed doubles with Agassi at a Grand Slam. Slim and none?

“Extremely, extremely slim.”

* On her two children, Jaz, and Jaden Gil:

“Jaz is 6 months old. She is an absolute sweetheart. She’s really the quiet one of the two. She smiles a lot. Apart from waking up early, she’s a great sleeper during the night.

“Jaden, he is an absolute sport nut. From the beginning on, you can go into the biggest toy store and he will come out with a ball. It doesn’t matter what size, what shape, as long as it’s a ball -- basketball, football, baseball, tennis ball.

“So, he’s extremely active.... He will go on the court when we are but that’s not so often.”

Graf joked that she thought she picked “the perfect time to retire.” When she stopped playing, Graf said she had no major regrets. And her feelings remain the same years later.

“I always worked hard and that took a toll at times physically, but other than that, I have to say, what kind of regrets can I have?” Graf said. “I was very fortunate with my career, so I wouldn’t change a thing. Look where I am right now, you know, through my career, I got to meet my husband. So I don’t want to change one thing.”


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