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.

Educating Steffi

By Cindy Schmerler, May 1986, World Tennis Magazine

For one so young, Steffi Graf lived the life of a much older person. At 16, she has traveled the world, collecting souvenir miniature bottles on several continents, won an Olympic Gold Medal, played arguably the most exciting match at the 1985 U.S. Open (beating Pam Shriver in the quarter-finals in three tiebreaker sets), and has become Germany’s second newest toast of the town, alongside the now-aging hero Boris Becker. She has also cried visibly on court, allowed her father to berate members of the media and tour officials, and acted ungraciously to sponsors and fans.

The picture of Steffi Graf is indeed complex. Away from tennis, Graf is an amiable yet rambunctious teenager who has been seen fleeing her mother’s grasp to run up and down the dirt road of a sleepy Mexican town in search of tiny bottles (“Like the ones you get on airplanes,” she explains) to add to her collection back home in Bruehl, West Germany. Considering she has already won over half a million dollars in prize money, it is a modest hobby.

But on a tennis court, Graf is anything but modest or amiable. In tennis, she no longer has her hand held by her mother, Heidi, but instead is within the grasp of her father, Peter, who has been known to mow down, with icy stares and scathing words, anyone who stands in the way of his daughter’s progress. And although Steffi would probably do fine on her own, because she possesses the tremendous talent and athletic ability now required for success on the women’s tour, her father remains a towering force: Coaching her, guiding her career, and sheltering her from any outside distractions that might interfere with the plan he has devised for his daughter.

It was Peter Graf who introduced tennis to his only daughter, back when Steffi was just a bony-legged toddler. “I don’t really remember when I started,” Steffi says during a rare quiet moment when her father, because he is not in town, cannot monitor the interview. “I know that we played in the living room and also in a big hobby room with billiards and things like this. We put two chairs up and we played over them. A couple of times when I got the ball over the chairs I would get an ice with strawberries.” Steffi’sface brightens and she giggles to herself, obviously remembering her inauspicious beginning. “It was really much fun. But it was always me and my father; my mother wasn’t too much in it.”

There is clearly a strong bond of love among the Grafs. Steffi never travels alone; she is sometimes accompanied by her mother, but lately Heidi has opted to stay home with Steffi’s younger brother Michael, after years of traveling the international junior circuit. So it is Peter who shepherds his daughter around the tennis world.

The two have become a fearsome duo on the women’s tour. Papa Graf has been known to interrupt interviews and silence his daughter if he does not like the way she is responding to a question. He has also accused fans and officials of favoring American players over his daughter. Several times he hasn’t allowed Steffi to attend post-match press conferences and, on one occasion, in Filderstadt, Germany, after Steffi lost in the semi-finals to Pam Shriver, father and daughter stood in the back of the room while Pam was answering questions posed to her. When told that Pam’s interview would be over shortly, Graf said sarcastically, “No, no, Steffi wait, Steffi not good enough as Pam.”

But the most crucial blow came in front of 5,000 spectators, a national television audience, sponsors and tournament officials at the Lynda Carter-Maybelline Classic in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last fall. After losing to Martina Navratilova in the final, Steffi ran off the court instead of waiting through the presentation ceremonies, claiming that she had to catch a plane. With her father shouting “Come, come, come” from outside the court, and Women’s Tennis Association public relations representative Nancy Bolger tugging from the other end, Steffi was finally coerced back onto the court to receive her $14,500 prize-money check, only to run off again before Martina had been awarded her money. The next day, local papers ran the headline, GRAF TAKES 2ND-PLACE CASH, RUNS.

“Steffi is a great girl,” says Bolger, “and I actually like her father. I think he really loves Steffi and is so attached to her that he just flies off the handle.” After one such incident, in which Bolger was the unfortunate recipient of one of Graf’s rages, she returned to her hotel room the next day to find flowers and a note of apology from Peter.

Lee Jackson, the WTA’s tour referee, has seen Peter Graf’s negative side morethan once. “He’s accused us of showing favoritism to the U.S. players,” she says. “He still does whenever Steffi plays a close match and loses. it’s sad, but it’s true.”
“Steffi is a wonderful girl,” Jackson continues. “She’s vivacious. But I just can’t strike some sort of pleasant relationship with the father. He’s got such a chip on his shoulder.”

Two weeks after the Maybelline incident, WTA officials decided that the Grafs were destroying themselves and set out to rectify the situation. Bolger and tour director, Georgina Clark, set up a meeting in Brighton, England, with Steffi and her father in which they explained the need for Steffi to maintain a “positive image” and uphold her responsibility to the game. They further added that the WTA wanted people like Steffi but that she was sending bad signals to the public, media and others. In short, they explained that people wanted to love Steffi, but that she and her father had to give them the chance.

Steffi, like her father, is not easy to get to know. Most of the other women on the tour know her by reputation alone, because she largely keeps to herself, remaining in her insular world rather than taking a chance on hurting her tennis game by befriending competitors. “You’re not really friends with anyone,” she says, “because everyone’s thinking of herself. Everyone wants to win, and to get a relationship is just so hard.” Even during a meaningless-but-fun exhibition week in Loreto, Mexico, Steffi preferred to take her meals in her room with her mother rather than sitting by the pool or joining in a volleyball game with the other participants. She won the event, beating a partied-out Hana Mandlikova in the final.

Getting to the top is a single-minded pursuit for Graf. At 5 feet, 8 inches, she is lanky but strong, with a grip size that rivals many men. Her forehand sends shock waves through every opponent-including Chris Evert Lloyd, who admitted being “intimidated” by Steffi’s forehand in the early stages of their final at the Lipton International Players Championships in February. Moreover, Graf is not afraid to come to the net and put the ball away. She much prefers that style of play to a Gabriela Sabatini-type baseline game, and, most important, she thinks that will prevent her, in the long run, from suffering the burnout syndrome that she is so sick of hearing about.

“Both Jaeger and Austin had two-handed backhands,” says Steffi, waxing philosophical, “and they played on hard courts too much, and that hurts the back. Also, they had the kind of game that it took 30 or 40 times across the net to finish the point. I’m not trying to do anything like that.”

Graf says she has benefited from all the hype that Sabatini received when she first came on the tour. With attention diverted, Steffi was able to slide through, free of pressure until she was ready to make her move. That move, which began at last year’s U.S. Open, has sent her from the top 20 in the world to within the top 5. It also showed the public that not only is Steffi a tenacious fighter, but she, and her father, have a definite aversion to losing. When asked whether Graf had the talent to succeed her, Evert Lloyd said, “I think so. I’ve always said that. Everyone pays attention to others, but she has all the shots – a good first serve, she moves beautifully and mentally she wants it.”

According to Steffi, the Shriver match at the open was “unbelievable,” an adjective she reinforces every time she thinks about it. “it was such an unbelievably close match. Gooodddd. In the first-set tiebreaker she was up
3-0 and serving, and I thought this set was away. And I got it! Then the next set I was up 4-1 in the tiebreaker. And I lost it!” states Steffi, who is so visibly exasperated it’s as if she’s replaying each point in her mind, even months later. “Finally, in the third set I was 4-1 down and I thought, ‘Aw, I let it slip away.’And again I got it. It was just unbelievable.”

After the U.S. Open, Graf became the object of more world-wide attention than she, or her father, were ready to accept. Ever since Steffi was 14 years old she had been bombarded by members of the German press at home, who have been known to call after midnight seeking interviews. But now the world wanted a part of her, and they had no intention of acquiescing.
Peter Graf feels that he had to intervene on Steffi’s behalf. “I know that normally I’m very aggressive,” admits Peter who, before leaving to manage his daughter’s tennis career, served as the manager of a tennis club back in Bruehl, “but it’s not always bad. We have a very good relationship. Most fathers push their children very hard, but I don’t push Steffi because she’s very disciplined. Sometimes I have to say, ‘Stop,’ because she works so hard. I have to tell her to relax.”

“My father is only trying to do the best for me,” adds Steffi. “He’s always saying if I want to stop I should stop. I mean, he’s not trying to get me to play the tennis, he’s giving me the fun to play. He’s doing everything so that I should have fun.”

Phil de Picciotto, Steffi’s agent at Advantage International, sees a fundamental difference between the Grafs and other parent/child relationships in tennis. “The big thing about the Grafs,” explains de Picciotto, “is that Steffi gets along so well with her father. Some parents live through their children, projecting their fantasies on them, and that can cause friction, especially when the child is not as driven as the parent. But Steffi definitely shares her father’s drive and also has the tremendous talent to fulfill it. They really share a common goal and that’s why they get along so well.”

Since Brighton. the Grafs have made a concerted effort to recognize Steffi’s responsibility to the game; not just to walk on the court, play, and collect her prize money, but to promote herself by projecting a positive public image. Bolger notes that Steffi has recently played mild practical jokes on her, and on questioning journalists, and she has even made an effort to join other players in promotional activities for Virginia Slims and the WTA. After losing the Lipton final to Evert Lloyd, she remembered to thank all the sponsors and even remained on court after the presentations to pose with some characters from Walt Disney World. Peter Graf admits that he, too, is “learning much from the Americans … step by step.”

Graf clearly has the talent and the drive to remain at the top of the women’s game for a long time. However, she does have another priority. When asked recently if she had one wish what would it be, Steffi thought a moment, then, rejecting the traditional To-Be-No.-1-in-the-World response, looked up, smiled peacefully and said, “To live all life long … but, with my whole family please.”

By Natalia Bykanova

“No,” she said the first time I called her. “Let bygones be bygones. Everything is nearly forgotten. I live a very peaceful and quiet life.”

Natalia Chmyreva, the most promising young player of the mid 1970’s, was polite but did not want to talk to the press. She hasn’t given an interview since her 25th birthday, when she quit the sport with not half of her talent realized.
She surrendered the third time I called her. “You can come if you need it so badly”, she said at last.
The former Soviet champion lives in Moscow in a three-room apartment together with her parents and a black cat named Musia. She does not attend any tennis tournaments and even the Kremlin Cup men’s tournament held in Moscow each November fails to draw her attention. “I’m overfed with tennis,” said Natasha “Once it made me the happiest person and once it made me the most miserable.”

“Natasha never fitted into our system,” claims Michael Chesalov, her former hitting partner. “Unlike the disciplined Olga Morozova, Natasha could never keep within the bounds.” In 1980, having won all the winter domestic tournaments, Natasha was expelled from the USSR Federation Cup team and dared to ask the sports bosses why.
“What did you do in Mexico last year?” she heard in reply.
“Just won the World Student Games,” answered the champion.
“What did you do there?” The tone of questioning became threatening. Natasha slammed the door. Her disqualification lasted a whole year.

Few people openly supported Chmyreva at that time. They were afraid that they would lose the opportunity to play abroad if they put in a word for an unwanted person.
Chmyreva was not the only Soviet athlete that was punished with disqualification for spending time with western friends at a western disco. At that time, Russians abroad had to live only in groups, so that everybody was easy to spot. Otherwise one had to write a report detailing where and with whom one spent time. Natasha never wrote such reports. She only wrote about her victories and impressions of tournaments she participated in.

To enter the journalism department of Moscow University, one had to produce at least five published pieces to the examining commission. Chmyreva became a student in 1975 and graduated in 1985, spending twice as much time as one needed for the degree because of tennis. These ten years included the rise and fall of the great Soviet tennis hope.

The rise of the young Muscovite was as swift as her game. Her mother, Svetlana Sevastianova, chief and coach of the “Dynamo” tennis club in Moscow, and her father Yuri Chmyrev, track and field coach, dreamed of making a world star out of their daughter from the time she was seven. All the family talks centered around Natasha’s great future.

Svetlana had her own definite approach to her child’s upbringing. “We didn’t want our daughter to have any complexes. She was the best. Why shouldn’t she know it and behave accordingly, like a queen of tennis?”
All this, combined with a lively emotional nature, resulted in some extraordinary gestures from Natasha. “She never chose her words and could thus hurt somebody unconsciously,” remembers a former rival. Chmyreva could carelessly abuse an umpire, or change her shirt without going to the locker room. She was the first to shock conservative Moscow audiences by playing without a bra and it was Chmyreva who introduced to Russia a new on-court hairstyle: she tied up her loose red hair with a band like an American Indian.
“What a controversial person you are,” Ted Tinling used to say to her, and, fittingly, he always used contrasting colours when making Natasha’s dresses: white and black, pink and black, light blue and black. Natasha keeps them all washed, ironed and untouched in a wardrobe.
Chmyreva brandished an athletic game more often seen in men’s tennis and her rare sense of the ball meant that she had the ability to play any stroke. On hard courts it was practically impossible to stop her. A hurricane.

Natalia Chymreva

Natasha was used to risk, since she spent most of her childhood climbing trees and jumping from garage roofs. On court, she always rushed forward, enjoying the taste of risky flight that the serve-volley game gave her. The famous theoretician of Soviet tennis, Professor Semen Beltis-Geiman, patronized Natasha. To him, Chmyreva was the personification of what he considered the ideal tennis player.
The professor introduced a new scoring system in domestic junior tournaments in the ‘70’s. For the volley or service winner, the umpire would award two points instead of one. That’s how he tried to stimulate an active, aggressive game. For the two years that this system was functioning, it took Natasha not more than several minutes to beat her opponents.
With the rise of Chris Evert, tennis fashion changed totally. Most of the newcomers imitated her style, but not Chmyreva. At a World Team tennis event in 1977, she beat Evert twice, signaling a wider victory for the adventurous player over the mechanical baseliner. In 1975, a 19-year-old Martina Navratilova did not return to Czechoslovakia after an American tour. Natasha always returned. “My parents and friends live in the Soviet Union, I have too many roots in this country,” Chmyreva replied to those who asked her why she didn’t defect. Natasha had more complexes than she thought.

Chmyreva returned to the USSR after that World Team Tennis event in 1977, knowing fairly well that it was her last time in the United States. Preparing for the 1980 Olympic Games, Soviet rulers forbade Soviet athletes from participating in competitions in which athletes from the Republic of South Africa took part. The USSR were afraid that black African nations would boycott the Games. But as it happened, it was Africa that was fully represented in Moscow. The whole civilized world ignored the 22nd century Olympiad because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pre-Olympic prohibition closed the world arena to Soviet players, as practically every tournament had players from South Africa. At the last tournament played by Soviets abroad, the situation turned dramatic.

“I don’t want to recall it. I felt very much ashamed,” said Natasha. Olga Morozova agreed to talk about it. “It was in Washington in the first round of doubles competition that we had opponents from South Africa. We couldn’t play and had to think of an excuse. So we finally said that Natasha had stomach troubles and skipped the match. In the singles, Natasha had a South African opponent in the second round. She didn’t play. At press conferences we were bombarded with questions and had to lie. Natasha couldn’t stand it and got very nervous because of the necessity to lie all the time.”

When the Iron Curtain slammed down shut behind her, the 18-year-old Chmyreva was ranked 13th in the world. She never got over this step. Having won by that time all the world junior tournaments except the French Open, which she was never sent to, holding two junior Wimbledon crowns and beating half the top 10 world players, she was shot down at the start of her flight and never recovered from the blow. The steeper the flight, the more painful the fall.
Morozova was sceptical when assessing the potential of her former opponent. “Natasha had a lack of self-control and an unbalanced character,” said Olga. “It’s hard for me to say whether she could have achieved more or not. Her character could lead her to failure.”
But the unbalanced Chmyreva at the age of 15 beat the very balanced Morozova right after her great success at Wimbledon ’74, where Olga lost only to Evert in the final. Three years later, Natasha won two matches against Chris, the iron lady of tennis.
Alexander Bogomolov, Natasha’s former mixed partner, thinks differently: “Chmyreva became unbalanced only when she understood she was not allowed to have a perspective of her own, due to the country’s policy. She knew she could achieve more and the impossibility of realizing her emotional and physical talents caused stress.”

Soviet officials never displayed generosity when it came to the money sports stars earned. When, for reaching the semi-final of the Virginia Slims of Chicago in ’77 Natasha earned $5000 prizemoney, sports leaders decided that $280 would be more than enough for her. But it wasn’t the final figure, as they kept back the price of living allowances. As a result she had $180 out of her $5000. Very fair arithmetic, isn’t it? At that time, any talk of prizemoney was considered disgraceful. Russians were all brought up to false morality. Nowadays we reap the fruits of that idiocy. But when you have a great aim to sustain you, even money is something you forget about. “It was all the same to me to eat a hamburger for lunch or a good piece of beef. The only real thing was the victory,” explained Natasha.

Although Chmyreva was very excitable in her play, her emotions never spread beyond the tennis court. At school she was known more as the best student in English class: she still knows the language perfectly. “ It seems to me that sometimes emotional behavior on the court was the result of the great desire of her parents to make her a great player,” said Alexander Bogomolov. “The aim to win by any means was set up before the girl and implemented in her mind too early. Children can’t stand such constant pressure and stresses are inevitable.
At 15, Chmyreva won through the qualifying at Wimbledon but wasn’t included in the main draw of the tournament. Englishmen thought that the All England Championships were not child’s play, even if the child won the right to participate. Times change.

In Melbourne at the 1975 Australian Open, Chmyreva reached the semi-finals and on centre court lost a tough match to Martina Navratilova, who was two years older. Most other tennis stars at the time were of mature age and Natasha looked like an infant prodigy among them.
Natasha first felt herself like a beautiful lady and not just an awkward teen at a White House reception. “In 1976 at the Virginia Slims tournament of the best 16 players,” remembers Natasha, “I was welcomed by President Ford. There were luxurious limousines that took us to the White House and a portrait of Jaqueline Kennedy on the wall. Ford shook me by the hand and asked something about Breshnev.” The Soviet leader preferred hockey to tennis and never invited tennis players to Georgevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

After 1977, Chmyreva trained with all her might so that she would still be in contention for the top after the Moscow games in 1980. In 1978 she won the championships of the USSR, in 1979 the World Student Games. By the time the Moscow games were over, Chmyreva was only 22 and had time again to conquer world tennis. The term of her disqualification had come to an end.
But at that time, Olga Morozova became the head coach of the USSR national team and at the first coaches’ meeting declared: ”I need Chmyreva only as a hitting partner for the young promising players.” So Chmyreva’s career was ended.
Olga dreamed of creating a teenaged national team which would reach the top of world tennis. The dream came true and her players twice played in the final of the Federation Cup. But not Natasha. At that time there was no other way for Soviet tennis players to participate in pro events abroad other than as a member of the Soviet team.
That was the heaviest blow. It took Chmyreva years to overcome the deep stress caused by the failure of all her hopes and the impossibility of self-realization. The former coach of Andrei Chesnokov, Tatiana Naumko, in discussing the way in which the Soviet tennis system stifled individual talents, remarked very correctly, “We’ll never have our own McEnroe in the Soviet Union”. It is a comment pertinent to Chmyreva’s situation. So Natasha lives with no great interest for life, reading, watching videos, chatting with friends and never asking, “Who won Wimbledon this year ?”

Natasha Zvereva, Steffi Graf

By Joel Drucker, Tennis Magazine, November 1998

Natasha Zvereva knows she could have been a singles champion. But with millions in the bank from a Hall-of-Fame doubles career, she has no reason to look back.

Every morning when Natasha Zvereva wakes up, she asks herself one question: ‘What is today?’

If she’s in Newport Beach, Calif., the upscale seaside community where she lives when on leave from the WTA Tour, her day might include one or more of the following: dipping into a collection of short stories by fellow Russian emigre Vladimir Nabokov; shopping at one of the many upscale boutiques in her town; hitting the dance floor with a passion she seldom displays on a tennis court; or hosting a gourmet dinner for half a dozen friends. Following a three-week run of California tournaments this summer, for instance, Zvereva concocted a feast of osso bucco, asparagus tips, criss-cross fried potatoes and an exceptionally buttery fruit tart.

Oh, yes, also on the agenda: Hitting tennis balls for an hour with fellow Newport Beach resident Kevin Forbes, who was ranked in Southern California as a junior, or former roommate and current doubles partner Lindsay Davenport. We’re not talking a 60-minute Jimmy Connors workout, where it’s combat to the death by the fourth ball. Rather, Zvereva’s practices are nice, friendly hits that usually lack the intensity of one of Zvereva’s typical trips to the supermarket. And don’t even ask about the gym or the track, today or any other day.

Subtract the home-cooked meal, throw in a couple of matches and you’ve got a good picture of Zvereva’s life on the road, too. Sometimes, such as at the final of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford this past July, she will step onto the court to play a doubles match without having struck a single warm-up ball. That day, she hid behind sunglasses and, aside from her usual pigtails, wore a distracted, almost fatigued, look. Yet once the match began, she brightened considerably, mixing laughter with play as consistent and creative as virtually any doubles player’s in tennis history. Roughly an hour later, she and Davenport, the top seeds, had beaten Larisa Neiland and Elena Tatarkova in straight sets.

For Davenport, the victory completed a daily double; she had won the singles crown earlier in the afternoon. But Zvereva, in a pattern that typifies her career, dominated in doubles while failing to advance to the final weekend on her own.

Her Hall-of-Fame-caliber resume features more than 70 doubles titles, including 20 Grand Slam crowns. Singles is another story. Though Zvereva climbed to No. 5 by age 18, she has earned only three solo tournament victories, and her lone Grand Slam final appearance, a crushing straight-set loss to Steffi Graf at the French Open, was back in 1988. Zvereva, in fact, has earned the most prize money ($6.6 million) of any woman never to have won a major singles title.

‘I don’t know why, but doubles just comes to me,’ she says. ‘It always has. It’s just too easy. I can get away with more things, my serve is less of a liability and I only have to cover half a court.’

For a fleeting moment this summer, Zvereva raised the hopes of her many fans that she might make a run at the singles glory many had forecast for her as a teenager.

It happened on grass, the surface that best suits her smorgasbord of speeds, spins, angles and volleys — and her short attention span. First, at Eastbourne, she sliced and diced Venus Williams en route to a 6-2, 6-1 win in the second round.

That was just a warm-up — literally — to her Wimbledon performance, where, in the third round, she defeated Steffi Graf for the first time in 19 meetings. During the course of that 6-4, 7-5 triumph, Zvereva converted 78 percent of her first serves, cleverly directed balls to Graf’s weaker backhand wing and used a deft assortment of drop shots and daring net forays.

Five days later Zvereva straight-setted Monica Seles, covering the court with uncommon grace and using her varied shot arsenal to render ineffective Seles’s double-fisted bashes. It was just the second time ever that one player had beaten Graf and Seles at the same event. Though Zvereva subsequently lost a three-set semifinal to Nathalie Tauziat, her All-England performance boosted her singles ranking from No. 22 to No. 15.

But it turns out her success, rather than emblematic of a renewed commitment to singles, was an anomaly.

Her singles goals remain modest, if not also curious:

‘I would like to be in the Top 10, but just barely,’ she says, lowering her voice and slowing down her words.’I would be really happy to be No. 8 to 10, though I wouldn’t complain at No. 7. I’m coming from the point of view that I can get there on my natural ability alone.’

‘I’m very lazy,’ she continues. ‘I’m not going to commit myself to hard work.’

Sitting in the player’s lounge at Stanford, still sweating from an early-round singles victory, Zvereva addresses the chasm between her singles and doubles records. ‘It’s not that singles doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘People make a mistake. They think doubles is what I always wanted to do. That’s not true. Singles was always No. 1.’

Indeed, Zvereva seemed a good bet to eclipse the solo achievements of Russia’s previous best woman player, Olga Morozova, a Top 10 player during the 1970s and Wimbledon finalist in ’74. Zvereva used her versatile all-court game to win three legs of the junior Grand Slam in 1987. A year later, as a 17-year-old rookie pro, she defeated Martina Navratilova at the French Open and, two rounds later, found herself in the final.

‘We’re talking talent like a John McEnroe or a Martina Hingis,’ says Morozova, a former Russian national team coach who now works for the British Lawn Tennis Association. ‘She could do anything with the ball.’

But after falling victim to both jitters and an overpowering Graf 6-0, 6-0 in 32 minutes (record time for a Grand Slam final) — a match she claims not to remember at all — Zvereva slowly regressed in singles. She has cracked
the Top 10 only once since 1988 and plummeted as low as No. 57 in early 1997 following an indifferent, injury plagued 1996.

Part of the problem is that despite her respectable size (5-foot-8, 138 pounds), Zvereva has never developed a big weapon. As a result, she must grind out matches, something her mind simply won’t will her to do. ‘I would like a little more power,’ she says, squinting, laughing and holding her thumb and index finger an inch apart. ‘I can’t just hit the first or second ball for a winner. I have to confuse people, which means I always have to counterpunch. Sometimes it’s very frustrating.’

But there’s more to it than that. While Zvereva claims to care about singles results, her actions indicate otherwise: She hasn’t had a coach since 1990. She has done nothing to improve her suspect speed by means of sprint and drill work. And she admits to losing her concentration during lengthy singles matches.

‘We thought if we crossed the border, life would be easy, that it would always be sunny and fun,’ Morozova says, speaking of both her own career and Zvereva’s. ‘But then Natasha saw that it would take even more, and
she wasn’t willing to work as hard as she had when she was younger.’

Zvereva agrees with that assessment.

‘I have pretty much been coasting,’ she says, without a hint of remorse. ‘Putting in more time on the court only bores me. It doesn’t make me better. I start to expect things of myself. I don’t think I can handle it mentally.’

This ‘slacker’ approach is in large measure a reaction to her micro-managed youth in the former Soviet Union. Her parents, Marat Zverev and Nina Zvereva, were both tennis instructors. Early on, Marat, who coached at the Soviet Army Club, decided that tennis would be his daughter’s passport to freedom. Starting at age 7, Natalia (the name given to Zvereva by her parents, rather than the name she legally changed it to in 1994) was pushed toward greatness.

‘It was a very hard working environment, hour after hour of tennis and drilling and matches,’ she says, her unblinking brown eyes displaying the weariness of a gulag survivor.

Zvereva began fighting for her independence from what she terms a ‘repressed’ lifestyle at age 18. First, with the encouragement of her father, she took on the Soviet Sports Committee, which kept the bulk of her 1988 prize money ($361,354), reportedly granting her a mere $1,000 weekly allowance. In April 1989, following her loss in the final of the Family Circle Magazine Cup at Hilton Head Island, S.C., Zvereva told a national television audience that she’d like to keep every nickel of her prize money.

With the Cold War thawing, Soviet authorities could ill afford the public relations debacle of a star athlete like Zvereva defecting. In the end, she was allowed to keep both her winnings and her nationality (which, following
the breakup of the USSR into separate nations in 1991, became — and remains — Belarussian).

Then, in 1990, Zvereva declared her freedom from her father by relieving him of his coaching responsibilities, opting to travel on tour by herself. ‘It was painful for both of us at first,’ she says.

Zvereva remains close with her mother (she visits her family in Minsk, Belarus, four times a year), but she and her father have grown apart in recent years. ‘His life is tennis, tennis, tennis, and that’s not me,’ she says.

Though Zvereva’s lack of motivation has proved a fatal flaw in singles, it hasn’t prevented her from becoming one of the premier doubles players of this era. Her remarkable reflexes help her finish off points quickly; her sharp angles enable her to take full advantage of the alleys; and her desire seems to rise a notch when she’s part of a team.

‘When others are counting on her, Natasha will never let them down,’ says Morozova.

Adds Davenport,

‘She’s just the best doubles partner, so supportive, friendly, fun and smart.’

Before pairing up with Davenport this year, Zvereva won Grand Slam doubles titles with four other women. She and fellow Russian Neiland (nee Savchenko) teamed to win the 1989 French Open and 1991 Wimbledon doubles titles. When the duo parted on friendly terms soon after winning the latter crown, Zvereva joined with Pam Shriver to win the ’91 U.S. Open. But it was in 1992, when she teamed with Fernandez, that Zvereva found her perfect doubles partner.

Natasha Zvereva and Gigi Fernandez

While most legendary duos — Billie Jean King-Rosie Casals, Navratilova-Shriver — were built on the foundation of one great singles player and a less-gifted accomplice, Zvereva-Fernandez was comprised of two solo underachievers who ably filled in each other’s missing pieces. Fernandez’s clean attacking game, so flighty in singles, became rock-solid when wed to Zvereva’s party-girl mix of chips and dips.

‘Neither of them wanted it on their own,’ says Dr. Julie Anthony, a former touring pro and close friend of Fernandez’s. ‘But they knew how to bring out the best in each other.’

And sometimes the worst: Their volatile personalities caused periodic conflicts on and off the court. According to Morozova, ‘Gigi wasn’t such a great influence on Natasha — she could be so temperamental.’

Zvereva and Fernandez attempted a trial separation in early 1997, during which time Zvereva won the Australian Open doubles title paired with Martina Hingis. Later that spring, Zvereva and Fernandez decided to take one more lap around the track together. Their wins at Roland Garros and Wimbledon upped their Grand Slam victory total to 14 titles in six years.

Fernandez’s retirement at year’s end terminated their wildly successful partnership. Oddly, neither member of the duo likes talking about it today. Fernandez declined to be interviewed for this story. ‘Gigi’s enjoying her life
away from tennis,’ Zvereva explains.

Zvereva is perfunctory in her own analysis of the secret to their success: ‘We had that chemistry.’

Curt answers such as that are representative of Zvereva’s policy of not revealing her true feelings (or much else about her personal life) to anybody — not even friends.

‘I’ve never known anyone like her,’ Davenport says. ‘She’s a neat person, but there are times when I wish I understood her more. She is so independent. She could go anywhere in the world and be totally comfortable being alone.’

Neiland describes Zvereva as ‘a complex person, her own person.’

Anthony believes Zvereva is ‘happier than Monica Seles or Steffi Graf,’ expressly because she isn’t so driven. She adds, though, that ‘Maybe when she gets older and looks back, she’ll wonder if she cheated herself out of the chance to really lay it on the line and go after it.’

But Anthony may be overlooking one important quality about Zvereva: She has always been one to wake up in the morning and think about ‘What is today?’ rather than ‘What could have been yesterday?’

‘I don’t think about the past,’ Zvereva says. ‘I live my life in the present, maybe with just a peek into the future.’

She pauses, then sums up the ‘fun-first, singles-second’ attitude that has characterized her career: ‘You have to want it, and I don’t. I’m not playing for anyone. I’m living my life the way I want.’

Sara Errani

Sara Errani wrote Italian tennis history today: she beat Jelena Jankovic 6-3 7-5 and became the first Italian player to reach the Rome tournament final since Raffaella Reggi, in 1985.

“I just tried to keep focused on my game and what I had to do. The motivation was the crowd. They were unbelievable and I have no words to say what it is like to play on this court with this support. Amazing!”

In the other semifinal, Serena Williams beat in-form Ana Ivanovic 6-1 3-6 6-1.

Follow our Internazionali d’Italia coverage on Tennis Buzz.

Photo credit: Marianne