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Graf's grand farewell

A winner of 22 Grand Slams and 107 titles, Steffi Graf rests her racket alongside the sport's greats.

She won 22 Grand Slam singles tournaments (including all four in 1988), was ranked No. 1 longer than anyone in the sport (377 weeks) and won more prize money than anyone in WTA Tour history (about $21-million).

Reflecting on those accomplishments, Steffi Graf asked herself what else could sheachieve? Her answer: Nothing.

So, on Friday, the German tennis star, who figured to retire before season's end, announced she is leaving the game after 17 illustrious but sometimes tumultuous years.

"I feel I have nothing left to accomplish," Graf said at the news conference in Heidelberg, Germany, near her hometown of Bruhl. "The weeks following Wimbledon weren't easy for me. I'm not having fun anymore. After Wimbledon, for the first time in my career, I didn't feel like going to a tournament."

Graf, 30, walks away as arguably the greatest ever. Margaret Smith Court won more Slam singles titles (24), and Martina

Navratilova and Chris Evert both won more singles tournaments (167 and 157, respectively). But no one dominated for as long or reached more milestones than Graf (107 singles titles), the only player to win a so-called "Golden Slam," sweeping the four major Slams and winning the Olympic gold medal in 1988.

Even more impressive was the circumstances around which she achieved those records. She often overcame nagging and potentially debilitating injuries, including a broken right thumb from a skiing accident, to win major titles. Her last Slam triumph, this year's French Open, occurred just months after she returned from an eight-month stint on the injured list.

She also won despite being hounded by widespread reports of infidelity by her father/manager Peter Graf and later a tax scandal that sent her father to prison. All the while, Graf never used any of it as an excuse when she lost.

"Steffi is a class act," WTA Tour chief executive officer Bart McGuire said. "As a motivated, well-conditioned, disciplined and competitive athlete, she has been a role model for women athletes in all sports.

"Steffi is leaving, characteristically, on her own terms. We wish her well."

Graf is another big name on a growing list of superstars to retire this year, a consummate champion on par with the others, who include Michael Jordan, John Elway, Wayne Gretzky, Barry Sanders and Graf's countryman, Boris Becker.

Soon after turning pro in 1982 at the age of 13 years, 4 months, Graf gained the nickname "Fraulein Forehand" for her thunderous, both-feet-off-the-ground forehand, which became her signature shot.

Though intensely private and sometimes withdrawn, Graf played with a brisk approach, extraordinary focus and class. It was vintage Graf that when she left the court after the final match at Wimbledon this summer, she did so without any sentimental gestures to mark the occasion.

That's Graf.

Her career, which carried tennis in Germany to unprecedented heights, was marked by her enormous athleticism and her stoic demeanor. She won her first Slam title, the French Open, in 1987, the same year she first reached No. 1. The Paris title started a stretch in which Graf won or reached the final of 13 straight Slam events.

It was during that time that she regularly demolished opponents with such swiftness that she sometimes practiced after a match to get more of a workout. Noted tennis analyst Mary Carillo remarked that "Graf owns the tour. Everyone else is just renting space."

But as Graf got older, injuries hampered her success more and more. She had allergies, foot problems, wrist ailments and back spasms. A knee injury in 1997 nearly ended her career.

But Graf, perhaps motivated by talk that she no longer could keep up with a new generation of younger stars, fought back. At the French Open this summer, she did what few believed she ever would again, won the singles crown.

In typical Graf fashion, she did it despite unprecedented circumstance, becoming the first woman to win a Slam title by beating the top three ranked players in the world in succession (Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis). That Graf went on to reach the Wimbledon final a few weeks later at age 30 only added to her place in history.

But throughout her triumphs in Paris and Wimbledon this summer, Graf warned that the end was near, leaving each event by saying she had played there for the last time. She figured to finish the summer hard-court season and wave goodbye for good at the season's final Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open.

But forced to quit because of an injury in the midst of her early-round match against Amy Frazier at a San Diego tour event last week, Graf decided to take her final bows Friday. And unlike Jordan, who left a sliver of hope at his retirement news conference that he might return, Graf seems gone for good.

"After (San Diego), the decision was very easy, maybe too easy," Graf said. "I was pulled back and forth, but when I made my decision I didn't think about it one minute afterward."

Graf said she plans a farewell tour of exhibition matches later this year and will concentrate on her marketing company and developing young German talent. But first she plans to travel _ without her tennis rackets.

"On the plane coming back from San Diego, I just started poring through these magazines and thinking of all the places I could go," Graf said. "I'm going to enjoy the privilege of having time to do the things I haven't had time to do before and discover what I want to do with the rest of my life."

After all she has accomplished and endured, she deserves at least that.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

Graf's highlights

+ 22 Grand Slam singles titles, second all-time.

+ 107 singles titles, 3rd.

+ Career WTA earnings leader with $21,839,777.

+ 186 consecutive weeks at No. 1, 1st.

Graf's Grand Slams

1987 _ French Open.

1988 _ Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open.

1989 _ Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open.

1990 _ Australian Open.

1991 _ Wimbledon.

1992 _ Wimbledon.

1993 _ French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open.

1994 _ Australian Open.

1995 _ French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open.

1996 _ French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open.

1999 _ French Open.

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