The late Bud Collins, a journalist and a TV presenter, was the one who first took to calling her ‘Fräulein Forehand’. The connect seemed rather obvious. She was German, she had a forehand one simply couldn’t take the eyes off and she hit it with mechanical precision.
When Steffi Graf was playing really, really well, she would bring out the topspin backhand. The go-to shot on the backhand wing at all other times was the backhand slice.
But that wasn’t why people would flock to the stadium to watch her. They weren’t there to see that incredibly hit ball toss for her serve either. Rather, they would wait to see her run around the backhand and then put her forehand to good use. She could hit it inside out, inside in, down the line or simply power it down the middle. It was power tennis way before it became the vogue in the women’s game.
The reason she could do this was down to her footwork. She was incredibly light on her feet and seemed to almost naturally be making small adjustments right up to the point she played her shot. These constant adjustments meant she wasn’t thrown off by the uneven bounce on grass or clay.
Still, running around the backhand is always a risk. It opens up the rest of the court for the opponent. It is a gamble at the best of times. Paint the lines or go crosscourt and find the right angle or find enough depth to throw the opponent off. Fail to do either of these three and you’ll hand over an easy point.
But Graf kept doing this throughout her career. Her backhand was her weak point (relatively speaking) – everyone knew that and the opponents relentlessly targetted it. But she used the slice to get the weak reply and then used the forehand to finish things off. It was the deadliest one-two punch in tennis.
“Nobody in the world can do what she does,” said Zina Garrison in 1989. “Her forehand puts fear in everybody.”
What Ivan Lendl did with his power groundstrokes to the men’s game, what Boris ‘Boom Boom’ Becker did with his serve... Graf crafted a revolution of her own in the women’s game with the forehand.
Starting at the 1987 French Open – where she lifted her first Grand Slam, beating Martina Navratilova – she reached 13 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning nine. In 1988, she won all four Majors (plus the Olympic gold).
She was unstoppable. Unbeatable. And each time the opponent threw a problem her way, she simply ran around it and unleashed another forehand.
Of course, one shot never tells the whole story. There was so much more to Graf than just the forehand. Her mental toughness was legendary. Her concentration was unwavering. She was one of the best movers the game had seen. Yet, when you look back at her career the first thing many will see is her forehand. It is the first thing that stood out about her game and the last thing we still remember.
Graf finished her career with 22 Grand Slam titles. She won 107 titles overall and 900 matches. She also spent a record 377 weeks at the top of the rankings. She won every Grand Slam at least four times. It was a Hall-of-Fame career built around a Hall-of-Fame shot.
Here’s a look at the shot that built a legendary career:
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