Why Reminisce? For Steffi Graf, These Are The Glory Days
LAS VEGAS -- At 45, the famous legs look just as lean, just as strong. Maybe even as agile as they once were, though she cautions with a laugh, "I'm tricking you ... I wouldn't run too fast."
She is Stefanie Graf in her post-tennis life, not the Steffi we first met at 13, when she turned pro. Or at 30, when she retired shortly after one last French Open championship, her 22nd Grand Slam singles title, and then a runner-up finish at Wimbledon.
In fact, married for 13 years to fellow tennis Hall of Famer Andre Agassi, and settled in his hometown of Las Vegas with their 13-year-old son, Jaden, and 11-year-old daughter, Jaz, Graf said she rarely recalls the glory days. And she pauses for a significant amount of time when asked how she views her career now that she has had time to put it into perspective.
"I just don't think of my career much," she said. "I told Andre early on after I retired and he was getting close to his retirement, 'You have no idea how quickly your career disappears, or you just don't even think much about it.' ... Just for myself, it was gone so fast and just on to a different life."
Today that life is dominated by her active children and her foundation, Children for Tomorrow, which provides "psychotherapeutic treatment to mentally and emotionally traumatized children who are victims of war, persecution and violence."
With trips roughly four or five times a year to Hamburg, Germany, where the foundation is based, she said, "It's a part of my everyday life. Not to take away from my family and the kids, but it's such a big part of what I care for."
On this particular Sunday afternoon, she is appearing at the FEI (equestrian) World Cup finals sponsored by Longines, one of several companies she still endorses 16 years after leaving the game. And despite an aversion to talking about herself, Graf addressed a variety of topics.
Both Agassi kids have tried tennis "a little bit," daughter Jaz more than older brother Jaden, but both are more interested in other pursuits. Jaz, who competed in horse jumping when she was younger, rides now more for enjoyment after an accident a few years ago in which she escaped serious injury, and is now involved in hip-hop dance.
"I have no background in hip-hop, and it's an extremely specific, extremely intense sport," Graf said. "I have not seen kids in any other sport work that hard physically at such an age."
Jaden began playing baseball at age 6 and now plays a full schedule of travel tournaments that keep him and his parents busy.
"Jaden has incredible hand-eye coordination," his mother said, smiling at the suggestion that this should not exactly be shocking, given his genetics. "It's crazy, actually. Tennis would have been insane. But baseball was for him early on what he loves."
Despite their backgrounds, Graf said she and Andre try not to interfere in their children's decisions on which sports to play.
"I think our experience probably holds us back a little, more than anything," she said. "We let them lead us a little more than we lead them. Obviously, there's a lot of things we can offer in terms of expertise and what you ask of your body, you have to give your body in rest and nutrition.
"There's a lot of valuable information we have for them in that sense."
And what if her children wanted to become professional athletes?
"Why not, if that's something they want to do?" Graf said. "But listen, to pursue anything professionally, that's a long way from 13 years old."
In fact, Graf was just 13 when she turned pro and Agassi, who wrote about the difficulty of moving away from home alone at 13 to train in Florida at Nick Bollettieri's academy, became a pro at 16. But today's rules limit the number of tennis tournaments boys under 16 and girls under 13 can play, and clearly that is not what Graf had in mind.
"Right now, they can do their sport but education is our main focus, to be honest," she said.
The family will have the TV on during some of the bigger tennis tournaments, Andre watching more often than she does, but other than that, "We follow it from a real distance," Graf said.
Still, she is aware of Serena Williams' pursuit of the career Grand Slam singles mark. With 19 titles, Williams is zeroing in on Graf's 22, which is the record in the Open era (Margaret Court has 24).
"I think she has all the chances to do it," Graf said. "Unless physically there would be an issue, I think she will."
"It's physically and emotionally such a difficult sport," Graf said. "They've done much better in scheduling now so at least you have a few months off. When we played, it was 12 months a year. You started the year at Australia at the end of December and you ended it at the beginning of December in New York, so at least now, they get a little bit of a break. But it's still a very demanding sport."
Nowadays, she said, "It's rare that I can be found on the tennis courts ... usually only for my foundation or to give lessons for charity or when the players are in town for the Adidas development program," she said. "I do enjoy it when I get the chance, though."
She feels it, as well, carrying reminders of a 17-year career with her daily.
"There are a few things that don't feel as good anymore," Graf said with a weary grin. "I've had a lot of injuries in my time. There are different things, even throughout the day at times, but hey, any professional athlete who has had a longer career, that's just part of it. The sport has given me a lot of other things that I'm extremely thankful for, so I'm OK with a few struggles physically."
"Just looking at my career doesn't happen very often," she said. "And I think [it's because] I had such peace of mind that I felt I gave my sport everything. I know I was obviously aware that I achieved a lot, but I think the comfort was that I felt like I gave everything to it and it gave me a lot in return. It gave me what I have now -- Andre, my family and the time to spend with them. I'm extremely grateful."
The old rivals
Graf considers herself fortunate that her career spanned some of the game's greatest champions and considers the level of competition one of the highlights of her career.
I cared for her as a person, and looking back, yes, it was horrible for the sport, but what happened to her was a tragedy.Steffi Graf on Monica Seles
"One of the things I loved is throughout my career, I played Chrissie [Evert], I played Martina [Navratilova], I played everybody," Graf said. "I played the 12-and-under with Mary Joe [Fernandez] and Gabby [Sabatini]. And then the majors from Arantxa [Sanchez Vicario] to Monica [Seles] and at the late stages, Kim Clijsters and [Venus and Serena] Williams. To have the whole span of all those different kinds of players is pretty cool."
Many tennis fans felt the sport was robbed of seeing the Graf-Seles rivalry fully develop. The series stood at 6-4 in Graf's favor when, at a tournament in Hamburg in April 1993, Seles was stabbed by a spectator claiming to be a Graf fan.
Seles, then 19, was ranked No. 1 at the time, had won 10 tournaments the year before and had defeated Graf in the Australian Open final. Graf reclaimed the No. 1 ranking in the summer of '93 while Seles was out of tennis for the next two years, and the Graf-Seles rivalry eventually ended at 10-5 in Graf's favor.
But beyond that, of course, were the scars of a horrific act, and Graf, who was 23 at the time, searched for the right words to talk about it.
"I know it took away from the sport, but foremost I think about what happened to Monica and the tragedy of her having to deal with that," Graf said. "Everybody was worse off -- the fans, myself, no question missing her, missing the possible matches we would have had that didn't happen.
"It was sad and horrible for our entire sport. It changed tournaments. I cared for her as a person, and looking back, yes, it was horrible for the sport, but what happened to her was a tragedy."
When Graf was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004, Agassi brought many in the crowd that day to tears expressing his love and admiration for his wife, saying in part:
"You never need applause to be at your best, you only need to give the best your soul could give to feel complete. From the roar of voices inside the lines of center court to the quietness of a child's bedroom, that generous soul, that unbending strength, that soft-spoken integrity, has never once been shaken. You have always been about action, not about words. You have never defined yourself by what you've achieved; rather you have achieved all that you have because of how you have defined yourself. Even now it takes my breath away seeing how you quietly laid down your racket to pursue love and motherhood with the same zeal and high standards you have always demanded of yourself."
Graf grew silent when reminded of the speech before describing what her marriage has meant to her.
"I feel extremely blessed for having met Andre and the life we've built together. Our love feels stronger than ever. There's so many things I love and appreciate about him. And having him by my side as we raise our kids is more than I ever dreamed of."
The union between two of the greatest athletes of their generation and biggest champions in their sport seems just as awe-inspiring now as it did 13 years ago. And the striking pair still attracts attention attending high-profile sporting events together like the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight earlier this month as well as the Kentucky Derby, UFC fights, occasional tennis tournaments and charity events.
But with both of their families, including Graf's mother and her brother and his family of four, living nearby, can suburban life with two kids now actually be described as "normal," she is asked?
"I don't want to define normal, but going to the grocery store probably at least once a day and being with the kids and bringing them to school and picking them up ..." Graf said. "What do you call normal nowadays anymore? But it feels incredible for us."