Graf Has Grand Ideas For a 19-Year-Old Player

By Peter Alfano
"New York Times"
August 29, 1988
The guests had eaten dinner, and without any prodding from her father,
Steffi Graf helped clear the table as she would if she were home in Bruehl,
West Germany, returning with placesettings for coffee and desert. It was a
reminder that the best tennis player in the world is still a teen-ager, one
who plays pinball, becomes animated when talking about books she has read
and enjoys the privacy of her room, where she likes to dim the lights, turn
up the stereo, and dance the night away.

She had a chance to do those things while staying with friends in Saddle
River, N.J., last week, in a new house owned by Eva and Lester Kiss. The
swimming pool wasn't ready yet, but the Deco II tennis court gave Graf and
her coach, Pavil Slozil, a chance to practice in privacy.

She and her father, Peter Graf, met the Kiss family two years ago when
Steffi came here to play in a tournament in Mahwah, N.J., a tuneup for the
United States Open.

Staying here is almost like being home, Peter Graf said, giving Steffi a
family atmosphere, a chance to be normal. It is a word that he uses a lot
during times that are anything but normal, when his daughter is on the
threshold of winning the Grand Slam.

A victory in the Open, which begins today, will enable Graf to become the
first player to win the Grand Slam since Margaret Court of Australia did it
in 1970. It will insure her place in tennis history.

There are only a handful of times during the year when Steffi Graf can enjoy
the luxury of what most people consider a normal life. Sometimes, that is
easier to do on the road. Lester and Eva Kiss have two sons and Steffi could
have passed for their daughter. She wore a dress during dinner, sipped on
Coke, and ate duck and vegetables.

She was friendly although quiet, which is her nature. She joked with Slozil,
who was trying not to gloat about his pinball score of 700,000, recorded
earlier in the day on the machine in the game room. The talk turned to video
games; someone mentioning he was pretty good from the baseline in the tennis
game, but had trouble at the net. "Just like me," Graf said.

Later, she changed into jeans and a sweatshirt and politely said goodnight
to everyone at about 9:30 P.M. "That's like midnight for Steffi," said one
of the guests, who met the Grafs four years ago in Florida.

It has become difficult for Graf to relax this way back home in Bruehl. Her
home has become something of a tourist attraction, Peter Graf said, with
hundreds of people driving by or poking around every day. He has three
telephone lines, and they ring all day.

The more ambitious have tried to scale a wall to reach the house, only to
encounter Graf's German shepherd, trained to discourage such behavior. The
more brazen knock on the front door. Peter Graf recalled a young would-be
suitor carrying flowers for Steffi, who was out of the country at the time.
When he returned, conversing as if he and Steffi were close friends, Peter
Graf became apprehensive and called the authorities.

Peter Graf is Steffi's coach and business manager. Being a father takes
precedence over both. In tennis circles, he is considered overbearing, a
tough man to deal with, sheltering his daughter. Although her mother stays
mostly in the background. she will join the family in New York for the Open.

"I know my image is bad," Peter Graf said. "I am protective. I am like the
mother hen. This is my daughter. People who have children would know how I

Steffi Graf may be normal, but she is not your average daughter. She is a
superstar, more significantly, a national hero and source of tremendous
pride in West Germany. Surveys show that she is more widely known than
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, with a recognition factor of almost 100 percent. If
she were to win the Grand Slam, they would be dancing in the streets well
into the morning hours back home.

But it is not all roses for Graf. In addition to all the adulation, she is
subjected to the same intense scrutiny that her countryman Boris Becker
faced when he won Wimbledon in 1985 at the age of 17. People hang on her
words, value her opinions on any subject, a situation that can be a
potential minefield. She is wise enough to keep most of her opinions to
herself, not ready, she said, to let people know more about her.

She has to pick her friends carefully. And it is only natural to wonder
about the motives of the young men who want to meet her. Such is the
competition among the gossip-mongering newspapers in West Germany that a
casual conversation can become a full-blown love affair.

Thus, Graf guards her privacy and critics are left to comment on her game,
demanding perfection. When she won a tournament in Hamburg, West Germany,
earlier this summer, a fan shouted he wanted his money back because she was
losing a set.

"It's very hard to be good at something in Germany, because people there
don't know what they want," Graf said. "I've learned to ignore it, to think
about my own life. I'm playing for me, doing my best."

For West Germans and tennis fans around the world, the normal Steffi Graf is
not the young woman who helps with the dishes, reads Hemingway and listens
to music every chance she gets. Instead, she is a gifted tennis player,
methodical on the court, playing as if she were late for an appointment. Her
calling card is a buggy-whip forehand, the most intimidating shot in women's

To fans, she is the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world, often appearing
invincible. People time her match as if she were a race horse out for a
morning workout.

"I can get bored if things go too easily," she said. "I'm not happy with my
opponent then. It looks like I'm much better. Some of my matches don't last
as long as signing autographs or giving interviews."

In addition to Margaret Court, only Rod Laver, Don Budge, and Maureen
Connolly have won the Grand Slam: the Australian Open, the French Open,
Wimbledon, and the United States Open. It is the most exclusive of tennis
clubs. All were in their prime, which Graf does not figure to reach for a
few years.

She has already had enough achievements to be listed among the best players
of all time. Graf has won Wimbledon, the French Open twice, and the
Australian Open. She has lost just four matches in the last two years,
winning 18 tournaments during that period. She is completing her second
consecutive year as the No. 1 player.

The United States Open title has been elusive. She has been to the final the
past two years, losing both times to Martina Navratilova. Some people think
the matches will be a mere formality this year.

Chris Evert suggested that a lack of competition may be Graf's biggest
handicap. "She's coming along at the end of mine and Martina's careers," she
said. "It's not like we're in our primes. She's a wonderful athlete, but you
have to wonder if she will have just a couple of great years or longevity.

"She'll need someone to come up to her level. I don't see Steffi being
around at 30."

Every era has had a dominant player like this, a candidate for the title
"best ever." Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills Moody, Alice Marble, Althea
Gibson, Court, and Billie Jean King are among those usually mentioned, and
more recently, Evert, then Navratilova were synonymous with women's tennis.

Now, before Evert and Navratilova even have a chance to take a final bow,
Graf has won over the audience, in effect, saying, "You ain't seen nothing

"In a way, it is strange that Chris and Martina could not win the Grand
Slam," Graf said. "They were so dominant and won so easily. Now, I am 19 and
on the way to doing it. The Slam is very important. You can win the US Open
10 times, but it's not like winning the Slam."

Watching Graf play gives you the feeling that she is one of a kind, a tennis
whirlwind about to cut a swath across Flushing Meadows as she did in
Melbourne, Paris, and London earlier this year. Laver, Budge, and Court all
have said that she has the stuff of a Grand Slam champion.

But Graf said she is not going to allow the Grand Slam to become an
obsession, spoiling what has already been a remarkable year.

Peter Graf has emphasized this point time and time again to his daughter.
"Grand Slam, Grand Slam, Grand Slam, that is all anyone has wanted to talk
about," he said Friday night in an after-dinner chat. "Steffi wins the
French Open, people ask about the Grand Slam. After her matches at
Wimbledon, they ask about the Grand Slam. There is more to her life than

It is her father, Steffi said, who must take the racquet out of her hand,
telling her she has practiced enough. One of the reasons she works so hard
is that there is little time to enjoy success in the year-round tennis rat
race. She wishes that were different.

But sitting in the den of the Kiss home Friday evening -- a semifinal match
at Mahwah scheduled for the next afternoon -- Steffi Graf did not give the
appearance of being overly anxious or mildly nervous about the Open, putting
her reputation on the line once more. College students fret about final
exams, but she said she was eager for the tournament to start.

"Steffi can handle pressure," Pavil Slozil said. "She has not changed as a
person one bit. She does not act as a superstar. I never met anyone who
loves the sport more than her."

A United States Open victory would not even be the final chapter in an
extraordinary year. Graf will represent her country in the Olympic Games in
Seoul, South Korea. She won the singles championship when tennis was a
demonstration sport in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. She was only

For the first time in 64 years, tennis will be a medal sport in the
Olympics. Thus, Graf has an opportunity to achieve the ultimate in tennis: a
Grand Slam and Olympic gold. No man or woman has ever won both; she can do
it in the same year.

The image makers at Advantage International have prepared for it. The
company that handles some of Graf's business interests has conjured a phrase
to mark the occasion. They are calling it the Golden Slam.

It will make her an even bigger name worldwide. In Europe and Asia, she is
among the best-known athletes in the world. Her endorsement contracts exceed
those of any other female tennis player.

An Open victory and the Golden Slam would open doors in the United States,
said Phil DePicciotto of Advantage. "She is a global commodity," he said.
"America is the most important marketplace, but the dollar is weak, and
other economies are important, too. It is harder to create or become a star
in the U.S."

Graf finds that appealing. She can walk down a street in American cities
without being smothered by fans. She can be normal. That may change a bit if
she wins the Open, but it is worth the price. Winning won't spoil her, she
said. More bad news for her opponents: she is looking forward to the next
few years.

"I'm 19 and have not been in tennis that long yet," Graf said. "I'm not
going to get bored in a couple of years."


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