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Jul 11th, 2004, 10:03 PM
Friday, July 9, 2004

22 major titles is hard to top

By Greg Garber

NEWPORT, R.I. -- Serena Williams has won six Grand Slam singles titles, including five out of six in 2002-03. Older sister Venus Williams has won four major championships, including four of six in 2000-01. That's 10 Grand Slam crowns, a magnificent number, to be sure.

The Williams need only a dozen more between them to equal Steffi Graf's towering 22 titles. Imagine that.

Can anyone -- Serena and Venus are the leading candidates -- possibly equal that number, without help from a sibling?

"It's going to be a question," Graf said in a conference call in May. "You can see it probably with Serena and Venus Williams. They have got incredible talent. They are physically so strong.

"You know, it's a matter of, also, the desire. There's lots of options for young girls, you know, if it's attractive enough to stay around tennis as long. I think that the talent is out there. It's a question of desire, as well as physically how they are able to keep up."

It is instructive that the Williamses have been fielding as many questions about their extracurricular activities -- fashion is the leading culprit -- as their tennis. And recently, injuries have taken them off the court and rendered them merely mortal.

Desire is, most definitely, the question.

No one had more than Steffi Graf. That is why the proud German, "Fraulein Forehand," will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., Sunday. She'll be joined by Sweden's Stefan Edberg and Dorothy "Dodo" Cheney, the first U.S. woman to win the Australian Open singles crown, as the Hall of Fame celebrates its 50th anniversary.

What separated Graf from her peers?

"My passion and desire for the sport," Graf said. "I was able to enjoy working out, and I think that made me who I am, made me the player that I was. I constantly was trying to get better.

"I was more driven by the way that I was playing, rather than the result. That gave me maybe an edge in terms of not feeling the pressure that I had to win, rather than my own pressure of competing well."

Today's MTV Generation might know her as Mrs. Andre Agassi, but Aggasi has won only eight Grand Slam titles. Yes. You can argue that he is Mr. Steffi Graf. Her list of accomplishments is staggering, quantitatively and qualitatively. Graf won 107 career WTA titles, but the Slams remain her lasting legacy. Only Margaret Court (24) won more.

Graf won Wimbledon seven times, to go with six French Open titles, five U.S. Opens and four Australian Opens. When she won the 1995 U.S. Open, she became the only player, male or female, to win each of the four major singles titles at least four times -- a tribute to the versatility and variety in her game.

Graf won three of four Grand Slam events five different times, over the span of 1988-96. Her dominance spanned from her breakthrough in the French Open in 1987 as a 17-year-old to her final major triumph a dozen years later in the 1999 French Open.

However, 1988 remains her signature season.

After winning that first French title in '87, prevailing over Martina Navratilova 8-6 in a memorable third set, Graf lost to Navratilova in the last two majors of 1987, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The next year, Graf defeated Chris Evert in the Australian Open final, then Natasha Zvereva in the French Open final, then Navratilova and Gabriela Sabatini at Wimbledon and the United States. It was a Slam of the grandest proportions.

"By that point, I was so exhausted that I really had nothing left," Graf said. "I remember match point and beating Gabriela, and at the end of the match, starting to cramp -- it was incredible.

"But after that, I had to get ready to leave, it was so much for me at a young age that, unfortunately, I was just exhausted to really soak it in. I just didn't have fun. I wish I would have taken a little more time to take a step back."

She kept going, though, and won the gold medal in singles at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, completing what was dubbed "The Golden Slam."

Any regrets? Actually, yes.

"I practiced extremely hard, and I think looking back, with that I would have just taken it a little easier," she said. "I just wish I would have had an easier time of getting away a little bit from the tennis. You know, I always wanted to play. I wish I wouldn't have had that desire as much because I think that would have kept me probably a little healthier."

Graf missed parts of her last five seasons, suffering injuries to her back, knee, ankle, wrist and foot. She retired in August 1999, after losing in the Wimbledon final to Lindsay Davenport.

"I truly felt, 'This is it,' " Graf said. "I took a few weeks to really be sure about it, but I was at peace with my career and I've never looked back. I felt like I've achieved more than I could ever dream of."

Today the achievements continue. Graf is the mother of Jaden, 2˝, and Jaz, who is 8 months old.

"The daily routine is waking up -- what was it today? -- quarter to six," Graf said. "The day starts really early with very little sleep. Jaz is an absolute sweetheart, she's really the quiet one of the two. Jaden is an absolute sports nut. You go to the toy store and he comes out with a ball -- doesn't matter what size, what shape."

Graf, who did not play tennis for a year after she retired, lately has found herself raising a racket. Is she, at 35 only a year older than Agassi -- lining up a comeback?

"No," Graf said, laughing. "No. I'm not coming back. That's not going to happen. No. That would take a lot of time away from my children, and I would not do that."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.