She didn't care to be loved, or so it seemed. Her game evoked the joyless efficiency of a piston pumping, her locker room manner fell somewhere between cold and hostile, and even knowing it was her last Wimbledon match, she bolted Centre Court last month without giving the crowd a final lingering glance, one last wave. It was fitting that Steffi Graf announced her retirement last week from Heidelberg, Germany—like much of her career, Graf's abrupt departure came to us from a distance. She wanted no tributes or teary ovations. She just wanted out.
But those close to the 30-year-old Graf will tell you her famed reserve stems less from arrogance than from shyness, pride, self-defense. Her 5'9", 132-pound body came about as close as possible to an athletic ideal, but it also served as a shield for a fragile psyche. Although—or perhaps because—she'd been on tour since she was 13, Graf never quite got over hiding behind her hair in press conferences, and she allowed herself few friends. Her father, Peter, embarrassed her publicly more than once, and there were times she couldn't keep herself from crying. A few years ago she was visibly shocked to find herself considered tennis's iron maiden. "Do you think I'm tough?" she asked. "When things are not going right, I'm frustrated or depressed or spaced out, but definitely not tough. I'm not good at confronting problems."
That was never more apparent than in 1993 when rival Monica Seles was stabbed by a German fan intent on making Graf No. 1. Graf visited Seles the next day in the hospital but never took the lead in denouncing Seles's attacker or fighting his release from prison. The crime left Graf dazed and feeling somehow culpable. "For a whole year I was almost haunted by it," she said last year.
Yet neither that bizarre incident nor some 50 injuries could stop her. Graf's comeback win over Martina Hingis in this year's French Open final, a smack in the teeth to the player who called her a has-been after Graf's devastating knee injury in 1997, capped the greatest singles career in women's tennis history. Even without that 22nd Grand Slam tide, Graf's all-around dominance—at least four wins in each Slam event—and her record 377 weeks at No. 1 had placed her a notch above Martina Navratilova and Margaret Court. But Hingis was a new generation's standard-bearer, and when Graf shattered her in Paris she added Hingis's name to a list of vanquished greats that began with Chris Evert and Navratilova.
Yet what was most memorable about that day had little to do with tennis. The shock of the win and the roars of the crowd at Roland Garros momentarily cracked Graf's shell. She took the trophy and hopped like a schoolgirl. Voice quavering, she grinned and said, "This is amazing.... I feel French!" She tried to console Hingis, told her—imagine!—not to take things so seriously and gushed to the people, "I want to thank you so much!" It was her best public moment, the one time in 17 years that Graf allowed the world to see the passion that made her supreme.