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.”