Steffi Graf and Serena Williams played each other twice and walked away with a win each.
But when it comes to winning grand slams, Graf is rooting for Williams to break her Open era record of 22 major singles titles at this month’s US Open.
“I’m cheering her on, yes,” the former top-ranked German told CNN’s Open Court in an interview at the Rio Olympics. “Because it’s great for the sport. Why not? She’s done so much for the sport. She’s out there working hard.”
‘I hope she does break it’
Aged 47 and now living in Las Vegas with husband and eight-time grand slam winner Andre Agassi and their two children, Graf said she wouldn’t mind being knocked out of the history books by Williams.
“I’m happy for her, I’m excited for her,” Graf said. “It’s cool that records are being broken, that’s what they’re there for. She’s been phenomenal for the sport of tennis, it has been great to watch. I hope she does break it.”
Williams, who turns 35 next month, tied Graf’s slam record at Wimbledon, where she beat Germany’s Angelique Kerber to clinch her seventh title at the All-England Club.. A double Olympic champion at the 2012 London Games, Williams was less successful in Rio where she was upset in the first round of the doubles event with sister Venus and in the third round of singles.
Dubbed “Fraulein Forehand” by the late American tennis writer Bud Collins, Graf’s game was built around a blistering forehand, athleticism and superb footwork.
She dominated women’s tennis in the late 1980s and 1990s, when she won 107 tournaments and topped the rankings for a record 377 weeks.
After winning her 22nd slam at the 1999 French Open where she beat Martina Hingis in a dramatic final, Graf retired shortly after her 30th birthday.
Having struggled with injuries in her final years on tour, Graf is amazed by the longevity of some of the top players still competing for the big titles well into their 30s.
“I have a lot of respect for all these players,” she said. “I’m looking at Roger Federer. You get into the sport at the sport at a young age and you play eleven months a year. It’s physically and mentally very demanding. I think it’s pretty amazing.”
Graf played then 17-year-old Williams twice in 1999, winning the first encounter in Sydney before losing the second in the final at Indian Wells, California, a few months later.
“She’s been around for over 20 years,” Graf said about US Open title favorite Williams. “To have that career and play at the level she’s been playing at is pretty unbelievable.”
Golden Slam safe, for now
Williams may soon become the most successful player since tennis turned professional in 1968, there is one record she’s unlikely to take from Graf.
The German remains the only player to have won the so-called Golden Slam in 1988, when she swept all four majors and Olympic tennis gold at the Seoul Games.
Tennis was never about breaking records said Graf, who turned professional aged 13.
“It wasn’t about numbers, it wasn’t about am I going to win this many tournaments or grand slams,” Graf said. “I was just striving to be the best. I’m happy where I ended up. I’m happy where I am in my life.”