Steffi Graf: The Next Number One?

August, 1986 edition of "Tennis" magazine.
 - by Peter Bodo.

"It's important for Steffi to gamble - and win," Peter Graf says about his
daughter. "So we play cards, or backgammon, and I let her win because it
gets her in the right mood to play a match.
     "We sometimes follow that with another game, this one called Animals. I
begin to recite the alphabet and Steffi stops me at a letter, let's say H.
Then she has to write down as many animals as she can that begin with that
letter." Graf's sad blue eyes light up, and he rises from the couch. He
crosses the room in his customary gallows slouch, hands thrust into his
pockets, an invisible world perched on his square shoulders. He returns
shortly, bearing a blue notebook.
     "You see, she has to think of as many animals as possible with that
letter. Here we have one for S." Graf passes the book over. The page is
filled with German words beginning with S, written in the meticulous hand of
a careful schoolgirl. Judging from the number of entries, Noah must have
reserved an entire deck for animals with names such as stag and seal, and
appointed young Steffi Graf to commemorate them all.
     "There must be a hundred names on this page," the proud father remarks.
"How do you like that for concentration, for memory?" The author of the
book, a young lady with large, elastic features and a smile as big as her
forehand, walks into the room. She giggles at the sight of the notebook and
says good night to her father and guest.
     "But Steffi," her father says in German. "Don't you want to go to hear
this band, just for a little while?"
     "Papi, please," Steffi complains, starting up the stairs. "I have a
match tomorrow. It's 9.30 already. I don't want to go."
     "You see," Peter Graf says. "She doesn't want to do anything but the
tennis. She is always a person who has one thing on her mind, and she
concentrates on it totally."
     These days, tennis is the chief topic on Steffi Grafs mind, and Graf is
the chief topic on the minds of those who follow women's tennis. She didn't
turn 17 until June 14, but by February of this year, the blonde native of
Bruehl, West Germany, had reached the No. 3 ranking on the Women's
International Tennis Association (WITA) computer.
     The Family Circle Magazine Cup, played on Hilton Head Island Island,
S.C., in early April, was Grafs 47th tournament as a professional. Despite
her unimpeachable consistency, Graf had never before won a singles title.
Her breakthrough at Hilton Head was fittingly spectacular: In back-to-back
matches on green clay, she overpowered Hana Mandlikova and Chris Evert Lloyd
to win the event.
     It was just the beginning of a sensational spring for Graf. The
following week, she captured the Sunkist/WITA Championships at Amelia
Island, Fla. Two weeks after that, she won the US Clay Courts in
Indianapolis, Ind. Then in late May, Graf routed Martina Navratilova 6-2,
6-3 on red clay in Berlin to capture the women's German Open.
    "I've had a lot of success recently, but this is my most beautiful day,"
Graf said at the time. "I used to be a little bit scared of playing Martina
and Chris. Now it's their turn to be scared of me." After winning 24
consecutive matches, Graf finally lost to Mandlikova in the French Open
     At various times in the early months of 1986, before her breakthrough,
Graf sincerely but unconvincingly insisted, "I don't think I am as good as
my ranking of the moment." But her peers were not as modest in their
evaluations of the Baby Bomber from Bruehl.
     Lloyd: "Steffi definitely has the game to contend for the No. 1
ranking. She has all the shots and she moves beautifully. She's fearless -
she plays the same whether it's 5-love or love-5."
     Navratilova: "Her head is square on her shoulders. She is a fighter.
She won't throw in the towel, and that is a pretty good mark of how far she
can go."
     Pam Shriver: "Steffi is the most legitimate prodigy since (Andrea)
Jaeger. The others are iffy. You speculate about them in a way that you no
longer speculate about Steffi."
     The striking quality in many prodigies is disciplined stroke
production, which is why some of them falter when they move into the
professional ranks, where technical excellence is virtually commonplace.
Grafs two outstanding gifts are extra-technical. The same ability that
enabled Graf to memorize whole pages of text for school examinations is
brought to bear in her tennis. As she puts it, "One of my best things is to
always be there, mentally."
     Concentration and determination are stock in trade for prodigies, but
they are rarely coupled with the type of natural athleticism that Graf
possesses. She has the lightest feet in tennis since the heyday of Bjorn
Borg. Steffi followed her father's footsteps into tennis. Peter Graf, 46,
dealt insurance and took up tennis at the age of 27, and within two years
his competitive vigor and dogged baseline game (Steffi airily dismisses him
as a "runner") earned him a national ranking. Soon he was giving lessons
after working hours, and operating a tennis facility with the help of his
wife, Heidi.
     At the age of 3 and change, Steffi began to bug her father about
tennis. She would drag out one of his racquets and ask to play, which her
father found annoying. "At this time I was playing at a good level," he
recalls, "and it was not very satisfying to think about teaching a little
girl. I was too tired in the evenings."
     But Steffi's supplications were answered. Her father took a saw to one
of his old racquets, and Steffi pushed the project one step further: She ran
string between two chairs in the basement hobby room of their home. It was
not until she turned 5 that Steffi made it out of the basement, into the
light of day. By that time, she was showing genuine promise.      "For a
long time, I believed that Steffi only wanted to play because she loved me
and wanted to be with me," Peter Graf says. "But the evidence of her talent
became very strong. Unlike the other children, she did not hit the ball and
then look all around at other things. She was always watching the ball until
it was not in play anymore."
     Graf developed quickly: By age 13, she had won the German junior
championship in the highest division, 18-and-under. She was the second
youngest player ever to receive a ranking on the WITA computer, appearing at
No. 214 at the age of 13 years and four months. She also was the youngest
competitor in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where she won the
gold medal.
     "That was an unbelievable feeling," she says. "There was nothing like
it, with so many people watching. I wanted to go and see a lot of the events
but I kept winning, so I saw the Olympics on television, just like everybody
    The tennis mania that Boris Becker triggered in Germany with his victory
at the Wimbledon 1985 also has carried Graf into the heart of the heartless
public eye. The Grafs have had to deal with all of the scrutiny and
criticism that is levelled at tennis parents, particularly when they are as
visible and involved as Peter Graf.
     "In Germany, they are always saying that I am pushing Steffi, living my
tennis life through her," Peter Graf says. "If anything, I spend most of my
time telling her to slow down. I know that when you create pressure, your
child will never be the best.
    "At school, when she was invited to a birthday party at 3 in the
afternoon she would refuse to go because she had to play tennis. I had to
make her go to the party., That's how Steffi is. Also, her self-criticism is
very high, so I'm always telling her to relax some more."
     Steffi already has a distinctive champion's grasp of just where most
people fit into her life and her ambitious agenda, a quality that critics
usually overlook. She says, "My father does a really good job keeping me
calm. I think many people don't understand that he takes pressure away, that
he puts all the bad things away from me and protects me."
     In the US criticism of Peter Graf has not centred on how he treats his
daughter. The major complaint against the elder Graf is a cut-and-dried
matter of the rules prohibiting coaching.
     "It's obvious that he coaches her," Lloyd says. "He has talked to her
in German during matches and given hand signals . . . The rules say no
coaching is allowed. So if you're an opponent, playing by the rules, that
kind of thing can be difficult to accept. It's just not fair."
     Partly as a result of the controversy over his impulse to coach, Peter
Graf has been engaged in an almost comical form of guerilla warfare with
WITA tour referee Lee Jackson. Graf keeps moving around the stadium during
Steffi's matches, and Jackson keeps trying to spot him in the crowd.
     Graf was so well hidden during his daughter's victory over Mandlikova
in the Family Circle Cup that Steffi's first words. to him when she left the
court were, "Where were you sitting? This time, even I couldn't find you."
     During her final against Claudia Kohde-Kilsch at the WITA Championships
the following week, Steffi was assessed a point penalty for coaching. Peter
Graf worked his way down through the courtside boxes at the subsequent
changeover to protest to Jackson to no avail. The TV replay from an ESPN
camera that had been focused on him showed Graf flashing hand signals that
rivalled those of a third-base coach in baseball.
     "I would go against 100 people if it is good for Steffi," Peter Graf
insists. "I am much more aggressive in these things than she is. Sometimes I
advise her to do something but she gets embarrassed and refuses - she wants
to have good relations with the women on the tour."
    All of her rivals and peers respect Steffi and genuinely like her,
especially now that she has come out of a shell of silence and inscrutable
watchfulness. "This year, everybody is noticing that Steffi is smiling,"
observes Patricio Apey, the coach of Gabricia Sabatini."I like that smile. I
think it means she will be with us for a long time."
     "I like to laugh but when I'm first around people I'm more shy," Steffi
says. "I don't really like to talk too much, so I find it difficult to start
a conversation."
    Graf is growing accustomed to the touring life, and she enjoys it.
Sometimes her adolescence is obvious. For example, she time." "I like to
laugh but when I'm first around people I'm more shy," Steffi says. "I don't
really like to talk too much, so I find it difficult to start a
    Graf is growing accustomed to the touring life, and she enjoys it.
Sometimes her adolescence is obvious. For example, she  did not know that
the official Virginia Slims Championships party in New York was an elegant
affair. Consequently, she showed up in jeans and tennis shoes, only to see
her peers in velvet brocade.
    "I was so embarrassed I just wanted to go away," she remembers. "Things
like that I am learning about all the time."
     When she is away on tour, Graf sorely misses her 14-year-old brother,
Michael, and her 8-year-old boxer, Ben (not necessarily in that order). Graf
enjoys cooking, and her favorite dish is Zuriches Gestchnetzeldes, a beef
and vegetable dish. "I'm good at eating," she concedes, "so I think it's
important to be good at cooking, too."
    On the court, Graf is good at pounding the ball. She has a forehand for
which she ought to carry a permit. It is a weapon comparable to the serve of
Becker or the forehand of Ivan Lendl.
     Late in 1985, Graf took a three-and-a- half-month break from the game.
She rested, and also worked on her serve and flat backhand. Since then, her
first serve has become much more effective, and she has added some variety
on her backhand swing. "That was an important thing for me, the time I took
last November to work on my backhand and serve," she says. "The only hard
part was having to take off two weeks without touching a racquet. I was
always begging my father to let me just hit a little but he said 'No'."
    Graf plays with courage and exuberance. The joy of tennis is simply
defined for her. "It's just fun to hit the ball. . ." she says. Her eyes
light up as she adds, "... to hit it hard."


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