Retiring at just 30 years old, Steffi Graf broke records that are yet to be contested to this day and she may well be the best player to have ever competed.
Tennis is a sport that is so individualistic and result-oriented that each match really is “anybody’s game” and unlike time-restricted sports like football or basketball, you have to see things through to the end. For that reason, dominating in this sport is incredibly difficult and demanding, and the torch of GOAT is often passed around between players perhaps more than most other sports.
Regardless, few have risen in the world of tennis to stand the test of time by preserving untarnished records and achievements that have stabilized them to be the greatest of all time in their own individual respects. Steffi Graf is an example of a one-of-a-kind player who achieved multiple unbeaten records that separate her from other legends of the sport and place her in a league of her own.
Steffi Graf was #1 for 377 weeks
Never before done in the history of the sport, and to this day yet to be contested by any male or female player is Steffi Graf’s incredible record of 377 total weeks as the WTA world number one. That’s a whopping seven years in total where the legend from Germany remained at the top spot.
Considering her early retirement at 30 years of age, Graf was a relatively young champion who first tasted the number one spot in 1987 at just 18 years of age. Incredibly, she retained this spot for a consecutive 186 weeks upon first reaching it and all the way through up until 1991. Of course, the number one spot had not seen the last of Steffi Graf, as she made a resounding comeback to reclaim it in 1993, a year in which she won 65 of her 67 matches played.
Steffi Graf introduced the Golden Slam
It is a feat yet to be achieved in the men’s ATP Tour, and that is the grueling challenge of winning every Grand Slam plus the Olympic gold medal in a calendar year. Known as the Golden Slam, Steffi Graf was the first to accomplish this when she won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon Championships, US Open, and the Olympic gold medal in 1988.
A feat that is yet to be achieved by any other player in the able-bodied ATP and WTA Tours, Steffi Graf achieved this phenomenal result as a 19-year-old who had barely entered adulthood. The years 1989, 1993, 1995, and 1996 saw Graf win three out of the four Grand Slams in each season of tennis, just one short of another Calendar Grand Slam win.
One of the most incredible things about Steffi Graff is the magnitude of her accomplishments before turning 30. No other player has won 22 singles Grand Slams at the age that Graf did it, not even Margaret Court or Serena Williams. Despite the early retirement, Graf still holds the third-highest number of Grand Slam singles titles in history, just behind the aforementioned.
What if Steffi Graf prolonged her career?
Announcing her retirement from tennis in 1999 at the turn of the new millennium, Steffi Graf stated “I have done everything I wanted to do in tennis” and alluded to her lost motivation and fun in the sport. Indeed, it’s not the type of retirement statement you often hear nowadays, in a world where many players are pushing far beyond their limits to prolong their careers as much as possible.
Steffi Graf certainly had the potential to keep on playing as she did not sustain any major injuries to warrant a forced retirement. For this reason, many speculate she may have achieved so much more than her already astronomical records in tennis, and it’s not hard to see the strong case for that. Assuming she continued her career up to the average retirement age of 35 years, Steffi Graf may well have extended her Grand Slam singles titles to surpass the record holder Margaret Court.
The counter-argument to that, however, is that she may not have been capable of winning another major because of her diminished interest in doing so. Nobody knows Graf better than herself, and her decision to retire is one that holds just as much validity as succumbing to an injury or old age. It was a choice that Graf had never once regretted and for that reason, she is quite charming in that she is one of the few players that truly did things her way.
As discussed at the beginning, tennis is a sport that you have to see through to the end every time you step onto the court. It’s not enough to be physically healthy or in good form because the winner is ultimately decided by who has the will, determination, and means to win. Steffi Graf was well-aware of this development in her character and did not force herself to change how she felt, as summarized in her retirement statement “For the first time in my career, I did not feel like going to a tournament.”
Thus, the answer to whether or not Steffi Graf could have achieved more in tennis had she not retired is not as clear-cut of an answer as many may think. Regardless, there will always be that air of mysteriousness as to what a prolonged career for Graf would have looked like had it manifested. One thing we can be certain of is that Steffi Graf remains a GOAT in her own right and for her own unique accomplishments.