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.”

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