From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
Almost no one had picked Sabatini to be a factor in this Open. Nothing she had done prior to the tournament indicated that she could turn her year around her year around in New York.
Elise Burgin, who had played her at Wimbledon, was one person who still thought Sabatini could be a champion.
“It’s really all up to her now,” Burgin said. “There’s no doubt about the talent. The only question is, with all the money she’s made, does she really want it that badly?”
Sabatini always insisted she did. Her match against Mary Joe Fernandez was the best of the tournament. Sabatini was now committed totally to Carlos Kirmayr‘s and Dick Dell’s plan that she attack all the time. Once she got to the net she had a huge wingspan and was tough to pass. Fernandez, a baseliner all the way, stood back and blasted. Sabatini kept coming in – until she won a dramatic and gutsy three-set victory.
But it hardly seemed to matter. Graf was playing like the Graf of old and Sabatini’s 3-20 lifetime record against her was hardly encouraging. Especially since all three victories had been on clay. So it was no surprise when the first set of the women’s final was a 6-2 romp. Except for one thing: it was 6-2 Sabatini.
Graf was spraying passing shots all over, mishitting forehands that would have endangered the planes if they’d still been flying overhead. Sabatini, feeling more and more confident at the net, was in at every opportunity.
“I knew she was going to play that was, that was no surprise,” Graf said. “The way I played was a shock, though. I felt good, ready to go. Then I went out and was terrible.”
Terrible for Graf is still not bad. Also, she had lost the opening set to Sabatini in the past. In fact, Sabatini had won the first set when they played in the Open semifinals in 1989.
However, it was a different Sabatini, one who wouldn’t allow Graf to get a rhythm from the baseline. She kept pounding away and served for the match at 5-4 in the second. Here, for the first time, she got nervous. Graf, sensing vulnerability, broke and quickly held to lead 6-5. She had two points in the next game. The first one she botched with another errant forehand.
On the second one, she hit a good crosscourt backhand, only to watch helplessly as Sabatini cut it off with a superb touch volley, the kind of shot she would not have even thought to play a few months earlier.
They went to the tiebreak. Sabatini could sense now that this wasn’t Graf’s day. She kept coming, Graf kept missing. On match point, Graf clipped the top of the net with her return. Sabatini closed in on it and hit a forehand right down the line. Graf stared, as if hoping a mark might appear that would indicate the ball had gone wild.
None did. It was a clean winner. Sabatini was jumping up and down and Graf, who had won eight of nine Grand Slams coming out of Australia, had lost three in a row.
Dick Dell‘s whimsical prediction of three weeks earlier had come true: something crazy had happened at the Open. Sabatini had combined a little bit of luck, a lot of heart, and her new style, one in which she used her size and strength to best effect, to win a championship that almost no one thought she could win.
“She’s playing the right way now,” Navratilova said after watching the match. “She’s so big, you can’t pass her. I didn’t think she could win, because her second serve is so weak. But no one seemed to take advantage of it.”
Why Graf had played so poorly was a mystery. As she came off court, her father made a point of giving her a warm hug. Prior to the match, he had gotten into a scuffle with a photographer. Had his daughter known? Had that upset her?
Article by Barry Lorge, June 1990
At the Baden Tennis Center in the Heidelberg suburb of Leimen, the most productive of 13 regional training facilities operated by the West German Tennis Federation, coach Boris Breskvar finishes hitting with three youngsters and invites a visitor into his office. The wall behind his office is covered with photos, a couple of which he points with particular pride. There he is with Steffi Graf and Boris Becker at the European junior championships in 1981. And five years earlier, a group photo of the Baden kids, when Steffi had just turned 7 and Becker was a lad of 8. Surely another picture is destined for this gallery. Graf and Becker, at 20 and 21, posing together last July, after she won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon for the second straight year and he captured the men’s crown he held in 1985 and ’86. If you perused newstands in Germany the week after this extraordinary “Deutschland Doppel,” they dominated the covers. One magazine even had them dressed in full regalia like king and queen.
Before last Wimbledon, Becker and his girlfriend, Karen Schultz, went out for dinner with Graf and her coach, Pavel Slozil. Becker and Graf also met a couple of times during the tournament and talked.
“In other tournaments, we saw each other and said hello and that was it,” Graf says. “This was the first time we communicated more than before, and we both came out as the winner. Afterward, we hugged. It was a great moment for both of us because we have known each other quite a while.”
A fairytale come true, Becker says, “I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls, so when I was almost 9 and she was 7, I all the time had to hit with her. From then on we more or less went through the same tournament and matches and we all the time kept a relationship… It’s impossible to think something like this can happen.”
GRATIFYING: It was particularly gratifying for Breskvar, who worked with Graf occassionally, and coached Becker daily, from the time they were barely out of kindergarten until they were teenagers. He had them hit against each other – not only because Graf was the top girl in Baden and Becker the runt of the region’s promising boys, but also because he saw in them similar stuff of champions.
“Steffi was (an) exceptional talent, and also mentally very, very strong,” he says. “She was never afraid. You know when it’s 5-all in the final set, they are all afraid a bit. They push the ball a little. Not Steffi and Boris. They were never afraid. They also lost matches, 5-7 in the third set, but they never pushed their shots. Also, they liked to compete.”
Breskvar, 47, who played internationally for his native Yugoslavia and has been employed by the German and Baden federations for 18 years, was at Wimbledon the second week of last year’s tournament with a team of German juniors. He watched the men’s final at Centre Court, guest of Becker’s Romanian manager – Svengali, Ion Tiriac, an old friend from their touring days.
An outgoing, expressive man with burning brown eyes, Breskvar saw Graf and Becker hold their trophies aloft and thought back to the kids on his wall. “For a coach,” he says, “this is a super feeling, something really special.” Becker grew up in Leimen, a town of 20,000 previously best known for producing cement. His home was less than a mile from the Blau-Weiss (blue-white) Tennis Club, whose indoor courts are now called Boris Becker Halle. Becker started hitting against a wall at the age of 5. After the Baden centre was built across the street in 1976, he practised there almost exclusively. Boris’ father, architect Karl Heinz Becker, designed both the tennis centre and Breskvar’s house. The coach discovered young Boris at a talent search at Heidelberg Schwarz and Geld (Black and Gold) Club in 1974, and worked with him for 10 years.
When Becker was 16, Breskvar turned him over to Gunther Bosch, a Romanian born friend of Tiriac; it was a year before Becker became the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon.
“His father told me, ‘Take care of my boy, and I don’t interfere. You must do everything,” Breskvar says. “Before he went to Bosch, he asked me three times to travel and coach Boris. I told him I prefer to stay in Leimen. I don’t want my boss to be one young guy. Nothing against Boris, who is a very good friend, but I prefer to work with a lot of juniors.” Breskvar’s relationship with Graf is decidedly cooler. She is from Bruhl, a town of 14,000 a few miles northwest of Leimen, closer to industrial Mannheim. In his instructional book – Boris Becker’s Tennis : The Making of a Champion, which has been published in Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan, England and Holland- Breskvar recalled his introduction.
“She was only 6 when she first came to us, but she already had a fairly reasonable technique. She had learned the basics from her father, who was a tennis coach . I can clearly recall the first time we met. Peter Graf came up to me and said, ‘I’ve found out as much as I can about you, and I think you’re the right man to train Steffi – because one day she’s going to be No.1 in the world.
“I don’t think I can be blamed for assuming that I was talking to yet another of these ambitious fathers who think the whole world is just waiting to see their child play. By the time we (had) completed the half-hour training session, I was greatly impressed, and inwardly asked Peter Graf to forgive me for thinking ill of him, for Steffi really did have talent.”
Her father groomed Graf’s game and is still her principal advisor, although former Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player Slozil also travels and hits with her. Breskvar believes that the Baden centre played more of a part in Graf’s ascent than the family is willing to admit. Steffi says: “My coach was my father. When he didn’t have so much time because he was giving lessons himself, I went to the centre. I played there until I was 12 or 13 – maybe 15 or 20 times a year.”
ENERGETIC: Breskvar is an energetic lefthander who puts an intriguing variety of spins on tennis balls and converses in 6 languages (German, English, French, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and his native Slovenian). He does not dwell in the past, which in his case includes being the third man on Yugoslav Davis Cup teams that featured two players ranked in the world’s top 10, Nikki Pilic (now the German Davis Cup captain) and Zeljko Franulovic. At the Baden centre, he has a number of promising prospects, including Anke Huber, 13, already the best junior girl in Germany and Romanian defector Mirela Vadulescu, 12, who has moved to Leimen with her family and was signed to a contract by Tiriac last year. Breskvar smilingly predicts, “they will be playing each other in the Wimbledon final in five years.” These days, however, the coach happily obliges frequent requests to reminisce about Graf and Becker. They were both exposed early to a sophisticated programme that incorporates not only traditional training in technique and tactics, but also physical and psychological conditioning. Breskvar works closely with Prof. Hermann Reider, director of the Sports Science Institute at Heidelberg’s celebrated university.
“For five years he helped me with Boris and Steffi, making psychological tests, motivational tests, studies,” Breskvar says. “He agrees with me that it is very important to train children not only in tennis, but in other ball sports.” Breskvar points to basketball hoops and goals for football and field hockey on an area paved in asphalt, adjacent to the four red clay courts at his centre. Here players develop their sense of space, movement and what is possible to do with a ball and bodies. “We play these sports a lot, as well as sprints and jumps and other athletic drills for conditioning,” Breskvar says. “I think this is very important when children are 9,10,11, because you must play a lot of combinations in your head. How to beat the opponent, move, set up a score. If you can transfer this to tennis, you can improve a lot. Steffi is a wonderful basketball player. Boris is good in basketball and very, very strong in football.”
Breskvar encourages an all court game, with particular emphasis on the style for which a given player is suited by physique and personality. “We take all the children to a medical centre and make an X-ray here,” he says, pointing to the wrist, “so we can see how tall they will be when they grow up. We can tell within two centimeters. We did this also with Steffi and Boris. This is very important because Boris was very small when he was 9 years old, but since I know he is going to be 190 centimeters, I must practise a lot of serve and net with him. If I know someone is going to be 166 or 168, we must practise a lot of topspin and ground strokes.”
AGGRESSIVE: Despite his diminutive size, Becker was already aggressive the first time Breskvar saw him, lunging and diving and making the horizontal leaps at the net that have become his trademark from the grass of Wimbledon to less forgiving hard courts. “Boris tried for everything, but his technique was not so good – tennis of jumping,” Breskvar recalls. “He didn’t know how to roll. Knees and elbows scraped, blood everywhere. I said,’Hey, stop, don’t do this. You hurt yourself.’ He said,’No no,it’s ok and again he does it. I liked him from the first moment, but I stopped the session because I was afraid he would break some bones. I told him,’O.K. in two days you can come to the centre and begin training with me,’ but I thought to myself first I must teach him to jump properly.”
Breskvar ordered gym mats, which still hang on the walls alongside the centre’s three indoor courts, and tought Becker to land like an acrobat. “After, I encouraged him to jump,” Breskvar says. “This is his personality and an important part of his game, for three reasons. First, he can reach more balls. More important is the psychological effect. When Boris jumps and gets the ball, the next time the opponent thinks, ‘I must play exactly on the line.’ He tries to hit into an area half as small, and that is very difficult, and often he is hitting out. The other advantage is this jumping is very attractive for the spectators, and pretty soon they are all on Boris’s side. This is a great plus.”
Graf has improved her volley, but favours playing from the back court, winning with a lethal topspin forehand and quickness and concentration that are almost as intimidating. Graf has outstanding hand-eye coordination, reflexes and racquet control to go with her speed afoot. Breskvar remembers the first time she picked up a plastic hockey stick and joined in one of his post-practice scrimmages: “The others looked on in astonishment as she stopped, dribbled and hit the ball as if she had practiced the game for years.” Graf also loves basketball, but says she was disappointed that Breskvar wouldn’t let her play soccer “because I could easily get injured.” Breskvar says that tests showed Graf had weak ankles, for which trainer Erko Prull designed a special exercise programme. She still works on conditioning with Prull, who she calls “a very good friend of our family.” It was in large part because their drive to succeed was so similar that Breskvar had Becker hit with Graf. “They practiced together sometimes, but not a lot,” Breskvar says. “This was better training for Steffi than Boris. I like him to play with older, stronger boys. It is important to find the right sparring partner- somebody who is a little bit better, but not too much.”
Graf realises now that she and Becker had some similarities. “Temperamentally, yes,” she says. “I have always been somebody who criticised myself a lot. When I didn’t play well, I was getting mad. Boris was the same.”
At the time, though, she didn’t sense how much alike they were. “Anyway, we were kids,” she says. “At that age, nobody really expected Boris would become the player he is. They thought I had much more chance.” What gave Breskvar a vision of the future was that Becker shared Graf’s uncompromising determination. One of the coach’s friends manufactured Capri-Sonne, a fruit-juice made in Heidelberg, which became the unofficial currency of training wagers. “Boris would ask all the time, how many will you give me if I win?” Breskvar recalls. “He was already a real professional. It was incredible. The more drinks at stake the better he was playing. When he was 14 or 15, I was still stronger than he was, but we had good matches- 6-3 or 6-4 every set. One day he asked, ‘How many drinks will you give me if I beat you?’ I said ‘The whole box.’ He was trying like a madman, and he beat me, first time. Boris is a born competitor.” This begs the question that is widely debated, within Germany and abroad. Was the emergence of Graf and Becker from the same corner of the country without much tennis tradition a quirk of history or the result of a programme capable of producing more like them?
FAIRY TALES: Becker said at Wimbledon that his and Graf’s success was so improbable that they will be grandfather and grandmother before their countrymen realise what they have accomplished. Graf also says it was the stuff of fairy tales: “What else can you call it? I mean, you can’t build up two players like that. I don’t see it happening again. It’s just luck, coincidence.”
Breskvar disagrees. “They are great talents,” he says. “Without talent you cannot work. But I also think that we have done a lot with those players. You ask Mr. Graf it is only him. This is difficult. But I think this centre was very important. It was the first in Germany, and without the opportunity to practice every day without paying one Deutschmark, over eight years, it would be very, very difficult.” The chief coach of the German Tennis Federation calculated that Becker’s court time, coaching and travel as a junior had been subsidised to the tune of $500,000.
“It is too much money for most families,” Breskvar says. “We pay everything. We pay everything. This is very important. A champion must be born with talent, but he must also have the environment. You can have a great natural talent for skiing, but if you live in the Sahara, you cannot win an Olmypic gold medal in skiing.”
Good genes and God-given gifts need to be nurtured. Raw potential needs to be recognised, moulded, motivated. “Boris was not the best in Germany when he was 12, 13, 14” Breskvar says. “He was about No.10. But when our federation was deciding where to put the money, I told our President, ‘I think Boris will be the best. We try with him,’ I don’t think it would happen without our help. There are so many players now, a champion must be something special, and he must be very well managed. The times are over when talent alone will rise to the top.”
Says Tiriac: “Boris Breskvar is a guy who had, and has, very good kids, so the results prove that he knows what he is doing…..Boris and Steffi emerging from the same area at the same time? That is an accident with ingredients that helped. Like tennis courts to play (on). Like parents connected with tennis. Like Breskvar to discover and develop the talent. If there are no courts and coaches, it is impossible to recognise a gift for tennis.”
The Baden tennis centre where Becker and Graf hit against each other as kids – must be recognised either as the setting, of an extraordinary fairy tale, or as a contemporary cradle of champions.
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.
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.”