Bringing Up Baby

By Peter Graf with Cindy Schmerler, World Tennis Magazine, May 1988

I knew my daughter Steffi was going to be a tennis champion when she was not yet 4 years old because her hand was stronger than most 6 or 7 year-old boys and girls. I noticed this when she held up her racket, the handle of which I had cut down so she could play at the club where my wife and I also played.

I was 27 at the time and No. 1 at the club, even though I started playing so late. My wife wasn’t a bad player either and we played a lot. Steffi loved to watch us. Most of the boys and girls went to the wall with a small racket and Steffi wanted to go too. I said, “Please Steffi, let it go. I will show you the right way.”

I was surprised to see that Steffi could hold the racket head up, even at 3 years and 9 months old. I told her to make a small bow and meet the ball in front of her; she could do that too. Every evening when I came home Steffi would be waiting at the door with her racket in her hand. If I said, “Oh, Steffi, I am tired,” she would say, “Oh, please Papa, just a little, O.K?”

I have to admit, this was not tennis back then. Everyone says Steffi started playing tennis when she was 4, but you can’t do that. We only played for four, five, or six minutes a day. Six months later, maybe it was 10 or 12 minutes, but it was always for fun and only as long as she wanted to play.

One thing we did during that time was gamble. We put a string between two chairs in the living room. I’d say, “O.K, now if you hit the ball over the net 10 or 15 times, you get Pepsis.” I would challenge her by saying, “I don’t believe you can do it.” But she always did.

We started playing in the living room, but pretty soon Steffi was hitting so hard she was breaking the lights on the chandelier. My wife had to buy more and more lights and she was getting mad. I had to say, “Steffi, one more light … you hit too hard.” Finally, I sold my billiards table in the playroom downstairs and we started playing there.

Even at that early age Steffi was very competitive. She wanted so badly to get the ball over 15 times. Then she would say, “Papa, if I hit 20 times …. ?” and I said, “if you hit the ball 20 times over we make a party.” And she did, so we had a big party with ice cream and strawberries and – most importantly – music. Steffi loves music.
I always knew Steffi had special talent. I had taught 6- to 8-year-old players, and Steffi was different. She always had her eyes on the ball. Nothing distracted her. Even if the phone rang, she never looked away. You think she has great concentration now; she was always that way.

The strength in her hand was also important. I made a video of her swinging at 5 years old and later saw a film of Tracy Austin at the same age. I noticed that Tracy couldn’t hold the racket the way Steffi could. Tracy was
a smaller girl, but Steffi was just much stronger.

But the most important thing was that Steffi always had fun with tennis. I saw so many players whose parents put pressure on them. They would say, “You have to play tennis today.” With Steffi you never had to say that. With her, I would say, “O.K, I think we can play today,” and then she was always at the court earlier than the time we were scheduled to play.

I have always been Steffi’s coach. Now other people, like Pavel Slozil, travel and hit with her, but I know her game best. I taught her the technical skills and still work with her all the time.

The good thing about Steffi is that she likes to learn. Now she’s not so easy to teach because she knows the game. She is stubborn and very critical of herself. After she misses a shot, she knows what she did wrong and doesn’t want to hear it from someone else. Tennis is a very individual sport and everyone who plays is an individual. That’s why it’s hard to teach someone to play in a group. In West Germany, tennis is organized. We have one and a half or two million organized players. In Leimen, where Boris Becker practiced (and Steffi did too sometimes), there were about 14 good players and three courts in the hall. There were four boys and girls on each court and it was impossible to teach individually.

So when Steffi was 8 I sold my car company and built a tennis hall near our home. That way I could work with Steffi individually. That was very important. We would work together for one or two hours every day and I knew exactly what was good for her and what wasn’t.

Not everyone liked that. A lot of people had an idea of how Steffi should play. At this time, Bjorn Borg was in, so the coaches in Leimen told me that Steffi should play with more topspin. I said that Steffi couldn’t do this because she didn’t have the strength. There was one boy who hit the ball with a great deal of topspin on the forehand, but the ball always landed in front of the serviceline. Steffi hit the ball to the baseline.
So I finally said, “If you think his way is right, let them play a match.”

Steffi won two sets in about 20 minutes. The point here is that every player is an individual. Steffi was not a topspin player so it was not right for her to change her game to suit someone else. Borg is an individual, and so is Steffi.

About six months later, Manuel Orantes won the 1976 Masters using a slice backhand; all of a sudden the coaches were telling us that Steffi must learn to hit a slice backhand. I felt the coaches were saying that to be a champion all players had to do the same thing. But I decided to make my own way with Steffi. She had to play the way she wanted to play with the shots she had in her head. So there were some people who were against us, but Steffi became the European champion at 11, 12 and 13 years old. And instead of playing topspin, she hit a normal, very fast ball; it worked for her.

What I learned from this is that sometimes you have to fight for things. That is not always my mentality, but I wanted to take all the pressure off Steffi and put it on my small – or not so small – shoulders. It was very important that I went my own way at this time and that is why I didn’t have so many friends in tennis. We went the way that was right for Steffi and maybe not right for 99.9 percent of the other players.

I know that people have compared me with Roland Jaeger, but I am not Mr. Jaeger. I don’t even know him, but he did say hello to me once at the Orange Bowl when Steffi was 13. At that time I knew my image was not so good. I hope that has changed, but if you have to make your own way, you can’t always worry about your image. I have also learned a lot since we first came to the United States that year. It was never my way to make big problems for others, but I know in the beginning I made some mistakes. But not everything was my fault.

Once in Berlin, when Steffi was 14, she was asked at a press conference if she would like to play Federation Cup for West Germany. She was only No. 5 in the country at the time, but she said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” Well, one man thought she meant she didn’t want to play and kept asking her why not. I came into the room at this time and said, “Now it’s done, finish please. It’s unbelievable what you are doing to my daughter.” And there were about 40 or 50 people there and they all said to me, “Why did you do such a stupid thing?” But Steffi didn’t know to just say, “If I’m invited, I’ll play,” and end it, so I had to help her. These things gave me an early reputation. But I think that is changing now and people realize that the only person I always cared about was Steffi.
Family support is one of the most important qualities in developing a champion. Steffi has a brother, Michael, who is now 16 years old and also likes sports, but not anything special. He likes skiing, is a very good track and field runner, likes basketball and dancing, and is not a bad tennis player. And he’s good in school. He will probably become a doctor.

Steffi and Michael are very close. Whenever Steffi calls home, the first thing she asks is, “What is Michael doing?” And that is very important. She likes her family and the support we give her. She also knows that I love my son the same as Steffi. Sometimes she says, “Oh, Michael has an unbelievable life because he can do everything.” But she also knows how lucky she is and what we have done for her.
The day before Steffi left to go to the States after her holiday at the beginning of the year, we had a big party for her at a disco and it was unbelievable. Steffi was absolutely crazy. There were so many friends there, boys and girls, and Steffi danced so much. Off-court, she is a normal girl and much nicer than people can see on-court.

But she also knows exactly what she wants. She knows what type of boy she likes and what kind of person she wants to be. She has a lot of personality that the other tennis players are just now starting to see. People are
beginning to understand that the way Steffi is on-court – she looks so strong – has nothing to do with herself. She only concentrates on the match. After that, she is absolutely normal, laughing and singing and dancing like other girls her age.

But in tennis, Steffi goes her own way. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t make a champion. You can help, but a champion makes herself.

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