Steffi Graf came back to the U.S. Open wearing pumps instead of sneakers, a sleek navy blue dress instead of tennis whites, and a carefree smile that revealed how comfortable she is with her decision to retire.
There may be a time when Graf will miss the game so much that she will change her mind, lace up again and grab her rackets.
"Right now," she said Saturday on the eve of the tournament she won five times, walking away "seems extremely easy. I don't know if that's going to be the case in a few months."
It seems so easy, she said, because she has no regrets. She has been playing professionally more than half her life, from 13 to 30. Her 22nd Grand Slam singles title, the French Open in June, was her most emotional and satisfying, completing a journey back from injuries and illnesses that nearly ended her career before she was ready to quit. She goes out now on her own terms and unquestionably as one of the game's greatest players ever.
"I feel pretty happy about leaving it right now," she said, two weeks after announcing she would skip the Open and retire from the tour. "I know I'm going to miss the competitiveness, without a doubt. The working out. It's different being on a bike or a StairMaster instead of being able to run around and be upset if you miss a shot or be happy if you win it. But right now I'm not missing it."
"It may sound a little strange, knowing me, but in a way a lot of pressure has gone and it feels good."
Graf spoke at the National Tennis Center on a beautiful, warm afternoon after Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Martina Hingis and Serena Williams and others playfully participated in the annual Arthur Ashe Kids' Day.
A sellout crowd of 20,883 helped raise more than $500,000 for charities, including $400,000 that will go to the National Junior Tennis League to help programs aimed at inner city kids.
Graf didn't perform for the young crowd, didn't even go out to wave to fans or say a few words to them. She only reluctantly agreed to pose for photographers one last time on center court when her interview ended.
"It wasn't my idea," she said of the photo shoot.
Publicity has never been something she's sought, and she's pleased to be stepping away from it, though she's consented to a round-the-world farewell exhibition tour starting in October in South Africa.
Winning the French for the sixth time and going to the Wimbledon final had a lot to do with her decision to quit, she said. All the effort she had put into her comeback left her spent in that brief period of sucess again.
"The motivation was gone, for whatever reason," she said. "The desire just wasn't there as strongly."
It wasn't as if she felt she had to make the statement that she was back, or that she was, in a sense, the best again, she said.
"I never really felt that I had to do that," she said. "I feel lucky that it happened to me and that I've been able, at such a point, to retire."
She said she's touched her racket only twice since announcing her retirement a couple of weeks ago, "once with my mother for a little bit, which was fun, and again a few days ago, just for another five minutes."
Graf's abrupt departure shocked many of her rivals. After the French and Wimbledon, most had her penciled in as the player to beat at the U.S. Open.
She, herself, had planned to play until the end of the year. But when she thought about playing two weeks on the Open's hardcourts, and going through the tuneup tournaments that would be necessary, she found herself missing something.
When it came time to fill out the visa application to come to the United States, she didn't like the idea of putting down nine weeks.
"It just didn't sound right," she said. "I wrote down five weeks, and it ended up being four weeks. I kind of knew already then that my desire to play wasn't as strong anymore."
She felt tired, perhaps from a bout of bronchitis. But, she wondered, "am I really tired of playing?"
She decided to go to San Diego, play once more, "to really be sure about it. I kind of knew already on the way there, because I didn't feel like going to another tournament."
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed