August 13, 1999. Heidelberg, Germany. The woman who’d always preferred to let her racquet do the talking let the world know she had something to say. She would later wish to be called Stefanie Graf. But on this day, as had been the case her entire career, she was Steffi, the consummate pro with the laser-sharp forehand, the knife-like backhand and the feet that churned like pistons.
They’d accumulated a lot of miles. Graf had turned pro in 1982, a precocious 13-year-old who’d already been touted by Billie Jean King. Her rise had been swift. In 1988, still in her teens, Graf attained a dominant “Golden Slam,” winning all four majors, as well as the singles competition at the Olympics. Over the next decade, she was thoroughly dedicated. By the end of 1996, Graf had accumulated what was then an Open era record 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
The next two years were frustrating. Injuries had taken Graf out for significant parts of ’97 and ’98. With such teen sensations as Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Serena Williams on the ascent, Graf’s time appeared to have passed. Through the first five months of ’99, she had yet to win a tournament.
Then came as good a burst of late career glory as anyone can hope for. In June ‘99, the month she turned 30, Graf won the title at Roland Garros, along the way beating such formidable opponents as Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Hingis, the latter in a thrilling three-set final. Following that victory, Graf revealed her emotions in ways she rarely had. “This is the biggest win I’ve ever had, for sure,” she said.
Off to Wimbledon. An inspired Graf reached the finals, losing in two tight sets to Davenport. But when it was over, she made a significant statement. “Basically, I won’t be back as a player at Wimbledon,” said Graf. “I don’t think I need to clarify anything. I will not commit on anything other than that. Right now I’m a little sad about everything, but in a way, I feel pretty fine with it.”
But it wasn’t clear if Graf was saying good-bye merely to Wimbledon or leaving the sport completely. Besides, the history of tennis was filled with tales of players who in the heat of the moment issue such proclamations and then changed their minds. Given how well Graf had played in Paris and London, it seemed viable she could follow in the footsteps of prior greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and continue to compete well into her 30s.
A month after that Wimbledon final, on Tuesday, August 3, Graf played her first match at the TIG Tennis Classic, a WTA event played near San Diego. Her opponent was 26th-ranked Amy Frazier, a player Graf had beaten all previous six times they’d met. After winning the first set 6-4, Graf lost her serve at 5-all in the second and received treatment on her left hamstring. Frazier won that set 7-5 and went up 2-1 in the third—at which point Graf retired from the match. “I could not move another step,” said Graf. Asked if this marked the end of her career, Graf said, “that’s something I’ll do spontaneously. It is something you feel in your heart. As I’m playing, I’m playing.”
Just over a week later, though, back home in her native Germany, Graf at last decided the time had come. “I have done everything I wanted to do in tennis,” she said. As much as her health had been compromised in recent years, Graf added that, “I’m perfectly fit. This is no way about injuries.” It had been quite a year for notable athletic retirements, Graf joining such 1999 retirees as her compatriot, Boris Becker, as well as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, John Elway, and Barry Sanders.
While Graf admitted that day that tennis was no longer fun for her, a surprising new adventure associated with the sport was about to enter her life. Two nights prior to the match versus Frazier, a man in a white convertible Cadillac had driven south from Los Angeles to see her. His name was Andre Agassi.