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.

McEnroe and Lendl, Roland Garros 84

Roland Garros has proven to be the most challenging tournament for some of the greatest players of the Open era, especially for those part of that now extinguished specie of serve and volley players. Let’s have have a look at the 5 best male players to never win Roland Garros:

John McEnroe

Grand Slam titles: 7
Best result at Roland Garros: final (1984)

82 wins, three defeats – that was the amazing record posted by John McEnroe in 1984 en route to one of the most incredible seasons ever in the Open era. And yet one of those three defeats – the final here at Roland Garros – has become legendary.

It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.
It’s even tough for me to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.

By making it to the final, McEnroe had racked up 42 consecutive victories, thrashing Jimmy Connors 7-5 6-1 6-2 in the semis. He was the huge favourite in this French Open final against Lendl, who was still seeking his first Grand Slam title at the age of 24. In the final McEnroe played beautifully to take the first two sets from Ivan Lendl in a little more than an hour. But McEnroe, distracted by courtside noises from a cameraman’s headset, lost his momentum. His temper took over as the Czech fought back to win in five sets and capture his first Grand Slam title.
McEnroe went on the win at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1984, but he would never get another opportunity to win Roland Garros.

Read what McEnroe said about this legendary final in his autobiography

Stefan Edberg

Grand Slam titles: 6
Best result at Roland Garros: final (1989)

Stefan Edberg‘s defeat in the 1989 final is perhaps even crueler than McEnroe’s defeat to Lendl in 1984, as he lost to a player who would never win a Grand Slam title again, Michael Chang.
With already three Grand Slams under his belt, Edberg was heavy favorite, despite the 17 yr old American’s incredible heroics en route to the final.The Swede led by two sets to one but could not finish it off and Chang became the youngest male player ever to win a Grand Slam title.

It was my great chance to win the French Open. Looking back, it was probably a match that I should have won with the chances that I had in the fourth set, but I should have been able to get out of that trouble. At the time, I thought I would get more chances to win the French Open, but I never did.

Read more on Chang’s victory in this portait by Rex Bellamy

Jimmy Connors

Grand Slam titles: 8
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985)

In 1974, Connors was among the players barred from Paris because they had agreed to play World Team Tennis, an American team competition which Philippe Chatrier, president of the French Federation, regarded as a “circus”. He had a stunning 99–4 record that year and won 15 tournaments, including all the Grand Slam singles titles except the French Open. His exclusion from the French Open may have prevented him from becoming the first man player since Rod Laver to win all four Major singles titles in a calendar year.

Although I’d missed the French Open for five years (it took four years for me to get rid of my anger and frustration after being banned in 1974), I always knew Roland Garros suited me. Not the surface or the balls they used, which slowed everything down too much for my game, but the atmosphere. It was hot, dirty, close and noisy… and I loved it. You had to be ready to grind it out. I’d buy a ticket for that any day.

Connors made the semifinals four times (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985) and the quarterfinals another four times, but one of his most memorable match at Roland Garros is probably his third round loss to Michael Chang in 1991. Read about it here.

Boris Becker

Grand Slam titles: 6
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1987, 1989, 1991)

Despite his 49 career titles, Boris Becker never won a clay court tournament, his best result being a defeat to Alberto Mancini in Monte Carlo’s final in 1989. That same year, Becker had his best chance at Roland Garros but lost (ironically) to a serve and volley player, Stefan Edberg:

I reached the semi-final three times, playing on a surface on which my main opponent was always myself. My game plan has always been to attack; that’s in my nature. On clay, however, the aim is to make fewer mistakes than your opponent. Paris is won by those who minimize risks and who hang on in there for four or more hours. Once I was very close to victory – against Edberg in 1989 – but it didn’t happen. I lost the fifth set 2-6

Pete Sampras

Grand Slam titles: 14
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1996)

One month after the death of his longtime coach Tim Gullikson, Pete Sampras reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, his best result ever on the Parisian red clay. On the way to the semifinals he beat two time winners Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier.

When I hit the wall against Kafelnikov, and felt my dream – our dream – blow up in my face, it really did sink in. Tim was gone. Our dream was gone. It was gone for good.

Dominant on hard courts and grass, Sampras was just a pale copy of himself on clay. Winner of three clay titles overall (Kitzbuhel in 1992, Rome in 1994 and Atlanta in 1998), he just couldn’t adapt his game to this surface. After his 1996 semifinal, he seemed to give up any hope to win Roland Garros, but later admitted he should have done better.

I could have worked a little harder. I mean I worked hard but you always look back at your career and feel I should have done.

Read what Pete Sampras wrote in his autobiography about his 1996 run through the semifinals

Carlos Moya and Thomas Enqvist

They played at Roland Garros a few years ago, they are now back in Paris as coaches, TV commentators or are taking part to the Legends trophy, and with this new trend of great champions turning to coaching, there’s plenty of past champions to see around the grounds at Roland Garros.

6-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker, coach of Novak Djokovic:

Boris Becker

Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker

Goran Ivanisevic, quarterfinalist in 1990, the year he beat then world No 1 Stefan Edberg in the first round. He now coaches Marin Cilic:

Goran Ivanisevic

Becker, Cilic, Ivanisevic, Gasquet, Mathieu

Sergi Bruguera, winner in 1993 and 1994, coach of Richard Gasquet:

Sergi Bruguera and Goran Ivanisevic

Bruguera and Gasquet

Magnus Norman, finalist in 2000, coach of Stanislas Wawrinka:

Magnus Norman

Michael Chang, winner in 1989 and coach of Kei Nishikori:

Michael Chang

Martina Hingis, finalist in 1997 and 1999. She coaches Sabine Lisicki:

Martina Hingis

Sébastien Grosjean, semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 2001, coach of Richard Gasquet:

Sébastien Grosjean

Fabrice Santoro, doubles finalist in 2004, interviews players after their matches:

Roger Federer

Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova, playing doubles together:

Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova

Kim Clijsters

Martina Navratilova

Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova

Iva Majoli, Roland Garros champion in 1997:

Iva Majoli

Anastasia Myskina, first ever female Russian player to win a Grand Slam title (Roland Garros in 2004):

Anastasia Myskina

Former world number one Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez, 1993 French Open runner-up:

Lindsay Davenport

Mary Joe Fernandez

1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna:

Jana Novotna

Natasha Zvereva, runner-up in that famous 1988 final against Steffi Graf:

Natasha Zvereva

Nathalie Tauziat and Conchita Martinez practising on court 15, they play the Legends Trophy together:

Nathalie Tauziat

Conchita Martinez

Martinez is now captain of the Spanish Fed Cup team. Tauziat is the former coach of Eugénie Bouchard (below a picture of them two at Roland Garros last year), she now coaches Aleksandra Wozniak:

Nathalie Tauziat and Eugénie Bouchard

Gaston Gaudio, surprise winner in 2004:

Gaston Gaudio

Thomas Enqvist and Carlos Moya, Roland Garros champion in 1998:

Carlos Moya and Thomas Enqvist

Albert Costa, winner in 2002. He is currently coaching Feliciano Lopez.

Albert Costa

Cédric Pioline interviewing Maria Sharapova after her victory over Eugénie Bouchard:

Maria Sharapova

Novak Djokovic

12 Grand Slams combined on one side of the net, 1 on the other side: Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic joined by their coaches Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic practised together on court Suzanne Lenglen on Friday.

Marin Cilic and Goran Ivanisevic

Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker

Novak Djokovic

Marin Cilic

They were joined at the end of the session by Richard Gasquet, his coach Sergi Bruguera and Paul-Henri Mathieu. Bruguera and Ivanisevic seemed happy to see each other, look at that hug:

Sergi Bruguera and Goran Ivanisevic

Sergi Bruguera and Goran Ivanisevic

Bruguera and Ivanisevic both made their big breakthrough in Paris in 1990 as they knocked the first two seeds out of the first round of the French Open. The Spaniard beat Stefan Edberg (finalist in 1989) while the Croat beat Boris Becker. Bruguera was defeated by another Swede, Jonas Svensson in the next round but Ivanisevic reached the quarterfinals where he lost to Thomas Muster.

More pictures (click to enlarge):

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Michael Chang and Stefan Edberg, Roland Garros 1989

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

The Roland Garros Stadium in Paris has come to be regarded as a graveyard for the American dream. Few Americans are attuned to sliding about on Europe’s slow, loose-top surfaces and patiently manoeuvring for their points. In terms of temperament and background, the nation’s leading players have mostly favoured hustle and bustle, fast action, and short points. It may be that a series of six Davis Cup defeats in Paris in consecutive years (1928-33) gave Americans an enduring, negative attitude towards the alien and hostile territory of Roland Garros. There ensued, with a hint of sour grapes, sporadic comments disparaging the French Open championships. Some Americans avoided the tournament, or regarded it merely as rigorous preparation for Wimbledon. Whatever the reasons, until 1989 only five Americans had won the men’s title, all between 1938 and 1955, and in the next 33 years only five more had managed to reach the final. It took a little Chinaman to show them how to win the toughest of all tournaments. […]

Chang‘s parents, both reasearch chemists, have done their best to merge Eastern and Western cultural values and the blend is reflected in his tennis. Moreover, Chang has been a devout Christian since 1988. He is adamant that it is for the Lord to decide whether he wins or loses: but equally adamant that he will not get a nod from the Almighty unless he bends mind and muscle with total commitment. […]

Agassi, almost two years Chang’s senior, reached the French Open and US semi-finals in 1988 and looked the obvious man to carry the American flag when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe passed it on. Chang gave us pause for thought in 1989 but Agassi may have the more exciting future if he can tighten his concentration and, tactically, learn to respect the odds – which should come naturally to any man born and brought up at Las Vegas.
Of the other players born in 1970 or later, four could be particularly worth watching: Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, both Americans, Goran Ivanisevic (a Yugoslav from Split, which also produced Nikki Pilic, one of the most engagingly argumentative chaps to enliven the early years of open competition), and Sergi Bruguera of Barcelona, who charmed us by the manner of his progress to the last 16 of the 1989 French championships. The long-limbed Bruguera has an elegant command of spins and angles and could develop into an enchanting clay-court expert. But one never knows what the future will have to say to the young.

Back to Chang, whose mother travels with him as ‘road manager’ and also looks after the cooking and laundry, joins him on fishing trips, and teaches him Chinese. In 1987, at the age of 15 years and 5 months, Chang became the youngest winner of the US boys’ 18 singles title. This was much to the credit of his fist coach, his father, a self-taught player who had taken up the game two years after Chang was born. Later, Chang was to benefit from the acquired wisdom of Brian Gottfried and Jose Higueras. His 1987 boys’ title earned him a place in the US Championships, in which he beat Paul McNamee. In 1988 he turned professional and headed for Paris, where he was overawed and given a hiding by McEnroe. But Chang had Leconte on the ropes for two spectacular sets at Wimbledon and at Flushing Meadow he beat the seeded Jonas Svensson and came from behind to win two consecutive five-set matches and reach the last 16. Agassi stopped him.

None of this prepared us – nor, one suspects, did it totally prepare Chang – for what happened in Paris in 1989. He had been a professional for a little less than a year and had played in only four Grand Slam events. But he came from behind to beat the first and third seeds: Ivan Lendl by 4-6 4-6 6-3 6-3 6-3 in the round of 16 and Stefan Edberg by 6-1 3-6 4-6 6-4 6-2 in the final. The Lendl match lasted four hours and 39 minutes, the final three hours and 41 minutes. At the risk of being too glib, one suggests that Lendl was outsmarted, Edberg outlasted.

Lendl did not take enough tactical initiatives. He seemed to think that if he kept pounding away from the baseline the lad would eventually be too tired and too inexperienced to do anything but lose. Chang did tire, too, but only in the legs – and Lendl was not cute enough to exploit blatant indications of cramp. Mentally, Chang was the sharper of the two when it mattered. Serving at 4-3 and 15-30 in the fifth set, Chang surprised Lendl with an underarm service that left Lendl embarrassingly exposed at the net. When Lendl was serving at 3-5 and 15-40 he missed his first service – and Chang wobbled forward on rubber-like legs to receeive the second ball while standing between the baseline and service line. The crowd roared at the little chap’s cheek. Lendl paused, to think about it: and then served another fault and was out of the tournament. Those two ploys by Chang were legitimate tests of Lendl’s alertness, nerves, and technical resilience; and there were no complaints from the ever-pragmatic Czechoslovakian.

The final was shorter because Edberg’s forecourt game abbreviated the rallies, one way or the other. In the first set Chang was all over him. Then Edberg took charge, finding his rythm with service, approach shot, and volley – and playing discreetly aggressive clay-court tennis to lead by two sets to one. The crux came in the fourth set. After an early break each way, Edberg had a total of ten more break points, the last of which would have left him serving for the match. But it was Chang who broke through, with the help of some good returns and, from Edberg, a few tired errors. That was how it was in the fifth set, too. Some of the spring had gone from Edberg’s legs and he was no longer quite confident enough on the forehand or quite quick enough when going to the net. But it was a classic final, an exemplary contrast between a nimble and crafty baseliner and a specialist in the service and volley.

Not that Chang could be dismissed as merely a baseliner. That was the basis of his game but he was more versatile and assertive than the likes of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, and Lendl. His groundtrokes were admiably sound, whether he was going cross-court or down the line. Given a short ball, Chang went for a winner or a penetrating approach shot – and, rather like Ken Rosewall, ghosted his way to the net as imperceptibly as a gentle breeze on a summer night. He seemed to have the knack of being in two places at once: and was impressively secure with his volleys and overheads. Chang took the ball early when returning service. As he is only 5ft 8in tall this was particularly prudent when he was challenged by Edberg’s high-kicking ball.

Chang’s outstanding qualities lay in the brain and the legs. He was always thinking and never missed a trick. His quick anticipation and sturdy legs enabled him to parry most thrusts, until his opponent made a mistake or gave him the chance for a telling riposte – a passing shot or lob, or a sudden acceleration of pace. There was logic in everything Chang did and displayed an instinctive flair for reading his opponent’s game and making astute, split-second decisions. Against Lendl and Edberg in turn he gave wonderfully precocious deadspan performances. Ruminating on Chang’s contemplative bent for fishing one felt a wave a sympathy for fish.

Chang was brought up on hard courts but may excel only on clay, as he did in 1989. He will grow stronger but is unlikely to get much taller. One cannot be optimistic about his chances of acquiring the power to win major titles on the faster surfaces.
We noted that, for all Chang’s cunning and tenacity, he was outgunned by Tim Mayotte in the 1989 Wimbledon and US championships. Like Wilander and Boris Becker, who also won Grand slam championships at the age of 17, Chang has built a big reputation on small foundations – in terms of experience, that is. But his place in the game’s history is aleady unique: and that has to be a comforting feeling for a God-fearing young angler who hooked a couple of very big fish while he was still settling down on the bank.