From court ruler to cuddly mother, Graf all about grace

Steffi Graf is one of three women in history who have won the calendar Grand Slam. Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

In April, ESPN.com asked you, the users, to name tennis' greatest living legends. On May 5, we began rolling out your top five in ascending order, beginning with the "Rocket" Rod Laver at No. 5. The remaining legends will be presented each day, until No. 1 is revealed on Friday, May 9.

He spoke. He cried. She spoke. She cried.

That was the tender scene in which Andre Agassi introduced his wife, Stefanie -- better known to millions of fans as Steffi Graf -- for her well-deserved induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on a very warm summer day in Newport, R.I. 2004.

Agassi, always more comfortable in the public eye than Graf, delivered an incredibly passionate speech in which he extolled the virtues of his beloved as a tennis star, best friend, wife and mother.

    "You have never defined yourself by what you have achieved; rather, you have achieved by how you defined yourself," Agassi told Graf. "And even now, it has taken my breath away to see how you've quietly laid down your racket to pursue love and motherhood, with the same zeal and high standards you have always demanded of yourself. … No one has ever known you to be infatuated by your own accomplishments. … The history books will record for posterity, your ability to embrace and rise above adversity, to play through injury, and to win again, and again, and again. … We have been touched deeply by your life, you have made us better, and we will never be the same. … Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you the greatest person I've ever known."

Graf, who unlike her husband is not in her wheelhouse in front of an audience unless she has a tennis racket in hand and a court underfoot, choked up throughout Agassi's heartfelt words and was atypically emotional as she accepted her enshrinement. But the tenor of her words made it clear that in her mind, it was not the 22 Grand Slam titles and the Olympic gold medal that resonate deeply in her life; rather, it was finding love with Agassi and motherhood.

"Not that this occasion isn't emotional enough, to hear how much you are loved is amazing," Graf told the crowd during her induction as she continuously wiped away tears. She then gazed at her husband and in one sentence summed up the most important outcome of her illustrious career: "The best part of the tour is I ran into you. I'll be forever grateful for that."

One of the most magical players to grace women's tennis, Steffi Graf was just a mere girl, barely a teenager, when she turned pro at 13 and soon began her rule of domination over the women's game.

The nickname Steffi seemed fitting for the German wunderkind, whose blonde ponytail flapped down her back as she whipped a forehand that seemed too big and forceful a weapon for her tender age, and who unnerved opponents by executing exquisitely placed serves and sliced backhands.

Those were the days when youth prevailed, but in truth, while Graf looked the part of a carefree teenager, at heart she was never the giggly adolescent. A serious and rather demure teen, Graf always appeared as if she carried a heavy burden, which eventually seemed to lift with the separation of her parents, Peter and Heidi. The split also signaled a shift in the role her father played in driving her career: he increasingly moved toward the backseat. The elder Graf, a car salesman until his daughter's career took off, was so entangled in Graf's finances that he was sentenced to three years and nine months in jail on tax evasion charges in Germany. His daughter, who was found not culpable in the matter, only answered reporter's questions about the incident upon leaving the Australian Open in 1997 by saying, "Haven't you guys got enough?"

Despite the turbulence, Graf remained closely aligned with her family, and her mother and brother's family all lived in Florida to be close to her. While Graf played under the German flag, most of her life has been centered in the United States -- first in Boca Raton, Fla., and then in Las Vegas, Agassi's hometown.

And Graf, of course, continued to excel on the court, where she was at peace in being a genius with a tennis racket.

A brilliant performer, Graf was most impressive in 1988 when she won a rare Golden Grand Slam: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the gold medal at the Olympics. Coincidentally, Graf's husband was also successful in winning all five of those titles, but Agassi did not win them all in the same year.

"Steffi Graf, when I played her it was just like a dream come true," Serena Williams said at the recent Sony Ericsson Open, where she equaled Graf's record of winning five Miami titles. "She was, hands down, one of the greatest players. One of the few players to win a Golden Slam: all the Grand Slams and the Olympics. Yeah, you know, when I think of Steffi Graff, I just think of the greatest. She had the greatest footwork ever. She was so focused all the time."

In the big picture, Graf is second all time in Grand Slam titles won (Margaret Court reeled in 24) and amassed a total of 107 career titles.

Only months before Graf hooked up with Agassi, she was contemplating retirement: During an interview, she talked about looking forward to moving to New York because she loved the sophistication of the city, the incredible museums, shopping and restaurants. But somewhere in the time after she won her final Grand Slam title at the 1999 French Open and reached her last Slam final a month later at Wimbledon, Agassi approached Graf. He had always had a crush on her, but he had bungled his first attempt to take her out years earlier when he had one of the people in his inner circle ask for the date. This time around, Agassi, recently divorced from actress Brooke Shields after a two-year marriage, approached Graf himself. Graf had recently broken up from a long romance with race car driver Michael Bartels, and she accepted Agassi's invitation. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

Amazingly, the budding relationship between two of the greatest players in the game remained a secret for months. The only public news about Graf was the announcement of her retirement: the pain from injuries was proving to be too much for her to continue playing. In fact, when TV cameras caught a glimpse of Graf watching from the upper-tier of the Arthur Ashe stadium while Agassi was beating Todd Martin for the U.S. Open title, unsuspecting journalists joked as to whether Graf had sufficient contacts to score a better seat.

From that initial coming-out party to now, Graf has emerged into a mature, happy wife and mother, putting Steffi aside for a more grown-up Stefanie. And while at some level she could be considered a working mother -- she still has endorsement deals and a schedule of appearances -- she primarily relishes in the everyday routine of family life, in simple tasks such as dropping her children off and picking them up at school. Memories of being the best tennis player in the world are special, but real life has captivated the essence of who Stefanie Graf really is.

A month shy of her 39th birthday, Graf remains an elusive force. She likes to join her husband in being a champion for charity, but she prefers to work behind the scenes while Agassi deals with being in the public eye.

She spends a majority of her time as a full-time mom to 6-year-old Jaden Gil and 4-year-old Jaz Elle. When seen in public with her children, she is quickly judged to be a warm, cuddly mother who naturally converses to the kids in both English and German. And she's enjoying every moment of it.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter, covering tennis around the world.