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Frank Deford
August 27, 2001
Over RATED Steffi Graf
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August 27, 2001

Tennis Player

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Steffi Graf

Steffi Graf had a terrific career, and since she won an Olympic gold medal as well as the Grand Slam in 1988, that year may well be the most distinguished any tennis player has ever enjoyed. So it has become fashionable to rate Graf the best women's player ever, and that is ridiculous. Most Grafites are in thrall to her 22 Grand Slam singles titles, a figure that exceeds what Helen Wills Moody, Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert rang up. (Although that total ranks behind Margaret Court's 24, almost half Court's wins came in the Australian Championships, at a time when few of the best players went Down Under.)

Whereas Court, Navratilova and Evert had stiff competition—Martina and Chrissie went virtually head-to-head—Graf caught an easy wave. For much of her career the best she had to contend with was Arantxa S�nchez-Vicario, a game little terrier, and Gabriela Sabatini, a frail competitor. Of even more significance, there's this little gap in Graf's r�sum� the size of the hole in the ozone layer: It's called Monica Seles. Graf had won eight of the previous nine Grand Slam titles when Seles surfaced as a champion in 1990. For the next three years, until she was stabbed by a deranged Graf fan, Seles won eight Grand Slam titles while Graf won two. As soon as Seles was eliminated as competition, Graf started winning the big titles again. Was Graf the best female player of all time? She wasn't even the best in the heart of her career.

Jack Kramer
Disclosure first: I wrote a book with Jack Kramer (left). However, that may be the point—you practically have to write a book with Jack to know how good he was. Look him up in the tennis records, and you'll see he won only the 1946 and '47 U.S. titles and the '47 Wimbledon. Slim pickings. Just as he was coming into his own, World War II took him to the Pacific. After the war, once he'd snapped up Wimbledon and Forest Hills (going 48-1 for '47), he turned pro and lost any chance to play the sacred tournaments. On a succession of pro tours he whipped Bobby Riggs, Pancho Gonzales, Pancho Segura and Frank Sedgman. Players today travel with their coaches, trainers and managers. Kramer was all that by himself before arthritis finally ended his playing days. Big Bill Tilden is the best player of the first half of the 20th century, Rod Laver of the second half. Kramer has fallen through the cracks. There's no telling how good he could have been if time had not been out of joint for him. Without a war and with open tennis, Kramer might have won as many as 20 Grand Slam singles titles.