Graf, Steffi (1969—)
Graf, Steffi (1969—)
Record-breaking German tennis star and Olympic gold medalist. Born Stephanie Maria Graf on June 14, 1969, in Bruhl, Germany; first of two children of Heidi and Peter Graf (a car salesman).
Under her father's guidance, began taking tennis lessons at the age of four and became the second youngest player to receive a ranking when she turned professional at age thirteen; won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open (1987) and swept all four Grand Slam tournaments the following year, during which she also won a gold medal in the Olympics (1988); became the first woman to win all of the Grand Slam singles titles at least four times (1995); facing stiff competition from younger players and sidelined several times for injuries, saw her game suffer (late 1990s), although victory at the French Open (1999) added a 22nd Grand Slam singles title to her career; announced her retirement from professional tennis (summer 1999).
Visitors to the home of Peter and Heidi Graf in the German industrial center of Mannheim were sometimes startled to find a length of string stretched across the living room. It was, as Peter would explain to the uninitiated, the net for the tennis games his daughter Stephanie loved to play. Sometimes, father and daughter would even engage in a brief volley for the amusement of close friends, all of whom had to agree with Herr Graf that his four-year-old daughter did, indeed, love to hit the ball back to him—hard. "I always wanted to hit it hard," Steffi Graf once said. "It's just in you as a child. You pick up the racket and you just play." By picking up the racket and just playing, Steffi rose to the very top of professional tennis in less than ten years and became the most famous German athlete since World War II, so beloved by her compatriots that she is still referred to as die Grafen ("the Countess").
The first of two children, Steffi had been born in suburban Bruhl, Germany, on June 14, 1969. Shortly after the birth of a son Michael three years later, Peter moved the family to nearby Mannheim to take a job as a car salesman. The bond between Steffi and her father was formed early as Peter encouraged and developed his daughter's natural talent for the game, particularly the powerful forehand—a high, chopping downward stroke—that would become her signature on courts around the world. Some said Peter was pushing Steffi too hard and was preventing her from forming the friendships of normal childhood by whisking her off to practice while other children were playing together. Further concerns were voiced when Peter placed ten-year-old Steffi under the tutelage of her first professional coach, Boris Breskvar, at a state-financed tennis program back in Bruhl. "The father was a god for Steffi," Breskvar later said, "and Steffi was for him also everything. She was crazy about tennis, but pleasing him was surely part of it." In 1982, Peter announced that Steffi would be leaving school to play professionally. At 13, she was the second youngest tennis player to receive a ranking, at #124.
For the next three years, Steffi learned the ropes of professional tennis by playing in futures events and in qualifying tournaments. Her mother served as her warmup partner for countless matches on hardwood floors in high school gymnasiums and on cracked concrete courts at small-town tennis clubs throughout Europe. "They were necessary experiences," Graf said years later. "You travel, you learn how to lose and you learn how to win." It seemed perfectly natural to her that Peter should direct her career, choosing her tournaments and her coaches, arranging her travel schedule and managing the prize money. As Steffi neared her 17th birthday, Peter set her on the path that led to her first Grand Slam title at the 1987 French Open, in which she defeated Martina Navratilova . It would be the first of six French Open victories in coming years. That same year, her relentless advance brought her to the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, a major win at the Chase championships, and her first million dollars in earnings. By August of 1987, just five years after turning professional with her 124th ranking, Graf had become the #1-ranked player on the professional circuit. She would hold that ranking
for 186 consecutive weeks, the longest unbroken #1 ranking in tennis history.
Even at this early stage in her career, the pressure was building. Although Graf was known to close friends as a sensitive and emotional young woman, Peter insisted that she keep her emotions in check on the court, in the locker room, and in front of the press, creating the same aloof stoicism that had isolated her from schoolmates back in Mannheim. Steffi's perfectionism was almost frightening. "She never appreciated a win as much as she was devastated by a loss," a friend once noted. "She would at times go into a room and not come out for a day." But the wins far outnumbered the losses. With her formidable serve, her powerhouse forehand and her calculating game strategy, die Grafen swept all four Grand Slam titles in 1988, made it to the semi-finals of the Chase Championships, and won a gold medal for Germany in that year's Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Despite the success, Graf remained publicly reticent and showed no outward elation at her good fortune. Her uncommunicativeness won her few fans off the court. "I… don't feel comfortable talking a lot, especially in public," Steffi once told a reporter, but Argentina's Patricia Tarabini spoke for many when she wondered, "Is 'hello' such a big deal?" Graf seemed able to reach out only in non-verbal ways, as when she ran into the locker room one day at the 1993 Virginia Slims in New York after Martina Navratilova's loss to Mary Pierce . Without a word, Graf kissed Navratilova on the cheek, handed her a small bracelet, and then ran out.
It's great to be a perfectionist, but sometimes being a perfectionist can also stand a little bit in the way.
Complicating matters was her father's increasingly erratic behavior, fueled by alcoholism and an addiction to tranquilizers. Peter's abusive treatment of anyone who criticized his daughter's play or spoke well of her opponents was the talk of the circuit, as was his secretive handling of Steffi's prize money. Peter was known to collect Steffi's appearance fees by stuffing the cash into plastic bags, and his arguments with German tax collectors over late payments were frequent. Further embarrassment was visited on the family when Peter's affair with a 20-year-old model was splashed across the tabloids. Amazingly, Graf's game never seemed to suffer. "I think the only place Steffi is supremely confident is the tennis court," one WTA tour official said at the time, and it was true that her wins grew in number as her personal trials grew more severe. Between 1989 and 1994, she won ten Grand Slam titles; her worst showing in those six years was her loss of the Australian Open in a finals match. By winning the U.S. Open in 1995, Graf became the first woman to win each of the four Grand Slam singles titles at least four times. She finished 1996 as the top ranked player for the fourth straight year, winning all three of the Grand Slams that she entered (withdrawing from the Australian Open because of foot surgery) and ending the year by defeating Martina Hingis in five sets at the WTA Championships in November.
But the accolades were bittersweet, for not a few critics attributed her remarkable success between 1993 and 1995 to the fact that her chief rival, Monica Seles , had been absent from the circuit since being attacked and stabbed during the changeover at a match in Hamburg. Worse, Seles' attacker later proved to be a deranged fan of Graf's who admitted he had wanted to remove Seles from competition so that Steffi could gain the #1 ranking Seles had taken from her in 1991. Graf proved her critics wrong when she faced Seles across the net at the 1995 U.S. Open and walked away with the singles title. But the real challenge came at the post-victory press conference when questions turned from the match she had just played to the fate of Peter Graf, who was by now in a German prison awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges. Unable to face this most difficult of questions, Graf bolted from the press room in tears.
German authorities had become suspicious the year before when a promoter filed a civil suit against Peter for the return of a $300,000 fee for an appearance Steffi failed to make because of an injury. Further inquiries revealed that Peter had not filed tax returns for the previous five years. Early in 1995, tax agents had swept through the Graf home in Bruhl and confiscated $150,000 in cash; and when Steffi arrived for a physical therapy session in Atlanta in August of 1995, just before her U.S. Open match against Seles, she was met by her brother with the news that Peter had been jailed. He warned that she might also be implicated in a scheme that German officials claimed had laundered millions of dollars in prize money through false corporations in Amsterdam, Liechtenstein, and the Netherlands Antilles.
Graf vigorously claimed that she had faithfully heeded her father's repeated advice over the past ten years and had concentrated purely on her game, leaving the finances to him. "Tennis was my part," she said, "and I felt 'OK, you do everything else.' I was fine with it. Maybe also because I didn't know any different." Peter himself was allowed only one public statement on the opening day of his trial, and made sure it was about Steffi's innocence. "I hereby declare unambiguously that until 1995, our daughter was in no way conversant with tax matters," he said. While Peter's trial dragged on and with charges against her still pending, Steffi was forced to face the world outside the tennis court. There were lawyers, accountants, financial brokers to deal with; a staff was needed to do the job her father had done single-handedly for so long. "I needed to do this," Steffi said of her forced entry into the world of deals and planning and bottom lines; but at the same time she was winning her three 1996 Grand Slams and finishing the year with just four losses. Even Graf wondered how she'd gotten through the year. "I wonder how I manage to survive all this," she said at the time. "I am sometimes an enigma to myself."
In January of 1997, Peter Graf was found guilty of evading $7.4 million in taxes and was sentenced to nearly four years in prison. (He was released on some $3 million bail 11 months later.) "He was stubborn and ambitious, and his ambitions misled him," the presiding judge said. But as Steffi took up her racket for the 1997 season, there was still no word on what the authorities intended to do about the charges pending against her. She was still ranked #1, but was overtaken by Martina Hingis after being bounced from both the Australian and French Opens by Amanda Coetzer and withdrawing from Wimbledon because of persistent back pain. The strain inevitably broke through her usual aloof manner. "Haven't you had enough?" she snapped at reporters after her loss to Coetzer, most of their questions being about her father and not the game she had just played. She won her only title that year in Strasbourg and was sidelined during much of June with a knee injury that required reconstructive surgery. It was during her recovery that German officials announced all charges against her would be dropped, and that Steffi had agreed to pay $1 million to the government and to charities of her choosing in restitution for taxes still owed. Steffi repeatedly and publicly stated that despite the ordeal, she bore her father no ill will. "I love him dearly," she said. "Nothing in that department will change. He needs help. When you know what alcohol and pills can do to you, it's difficult to be angry."
The press now took note of a new maturity in Steffi's demeanor, while her friends and competitors in the game felt that she had finally begun to open up to them. Jennifer Capriati , whose substance abuse had removed her from the court for 14 months for treatment, recalled how Graf was one of the first to welcome her back with a warm embrace. "A very caring person," Capriati said of Steffi, "and more outgoing than I've ever seen her." Steffi herself had been absent from play for nine months because of her knee injury, and only made it to the quarterfinals in what was to have been her comeback tournament, the 1998 Faber Grand Prix. At 29 years of age, and after 16 years of professional play, Steffi's aging ankles, hamstrings and knees were becoming troublesome, forcing her withdrawal from the WTA tour rankings in June of 1998. It was the first time her name had been absent from the list in 15 years, and Martina Hingis went so far as to venture the opinion that Steffi's reign was finally giving way to younger players.
Graf's subsequent announcement that she would play in the U.S. Open was taken as a retort to Hingis' rash statement, but Steffi denied she was coming back with vengeance in mind. "I don't need to prove to anybody but myself," she said. She played respectably at the Open, but lost in the fourth round to 10th-ranked Patty Schnyder . It wasn't until several weeks later, nearly the end of the 1998 season, that Graf reached finals play and captured her first title in 15 months at the Pilot Pen International in New Haven, at least assuring that she would complete 13 consecutive titled years. On her way to the New Haven title, Steffi managed to defeat her old nemesis Amanda Coetzer in the quarterfinals, after losing three times to Coetzer in the previous year, and to make up in the semifinals her two 1998 losses to Lindsay Davenport . It was her first win over a top-ten seeded player in more than a year, forcing the gossip mill to change gears and wonder if Steffi was finally getting a second wind.
As the first half of the 1999 season unfolded, Steffi played through to the semifinals at the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open, where she lost to Monica Seles 5-7, 1-6; and at the Adidas International, the Faber Grand Prix, and the Lipton Championships. She seemed back in top form as she defeated Martina Hingis to capture her 22nd Grand Slam title at the French Open, second only to Margaret Smith Court 's 24, adding to the hush in the press room when Graf announced after her victory that it would be her last appearance in the clay court tournament. She made much the same declaration a month later at Wimbledon, after battling her way to the finals on the grass court only to fall to Lindsay Davenport 6-4, 7-5, missing her seventh Wimbledon championship. "She has clearly grown tired of having to treat every Grand Slam event as a two-week test in pain management," wrote The New York Times' George Vecsey, noting the bandage on Steffi's right thigh during the match and her continuing treatments for back pain. She played an uncharacteristically defensive game at Wimbledon, never really recovering after Davenport broke her serve in the first game of the match. "Right now I'm a little sad about everything," Graf said in making her retirement from Wimbledon public, "but in a way I still feel like a winner getting out of this tournament," referring to her defeat of the young and formidable sisters, Venus and Serena Williams , during semifinals play. Graf could just as easily have pointed in triumph to the 103 singles titles she had won in 17 years of competition, placing her third in that category behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert ; or the fact that she had held, or shared, the WTA's #1 ranking for a record-breaking 377 weeks during her career.
Going into the U.S. Open, where she had been the #1 seeded player a record nine times, she was still ranked as the world's third best tennis player, behind Davenport and Hingis; but early in August of 1999, several weeks before Open play began, Graf officially announced her retirement from professional tennis. She told a small press conference in Germany that while her recent physical injuries played a part in her decision, her loss of enthusiasm for the game was the primary reason for stepping down. "The weeks after Wimbledon were not easy," she said. "I thought I would carry on playing until the end of the year. But I do not feel like flying to tournaments anymore. That's new. I decided to play a few more tournaments to see if that feeling would go away, but it didn't."
Steffi now splits her time between homes in Florida, New York, and Germany while overseeing her own company, Steffi Graf Sport, which she hopes to expand beyond tennis into live entertainment events. But it's in her private life that she now finds the security only the tennis court could once provide. Her parents' marriage somehow survived Peter's addictions, conviction and imprisonment, and Steffi finds added strength from her long-time relationship with race car driver Michael Bartels. She founded and personally directs Children For Tomorrow, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children traumatized by war and political persecution. After so many years of competition, she points out, her priorities have begun to change. "When you're seventeen, you win and you win and you just accept it," Graf says. "It's nicer to have these feelings, this joy!"
Finn, Robin. "Davenport Wins as Graf Says Goodbye," in The New York Times. July 5, 1999.
Jenkins, Sally. "Do Not Disturb," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 80, no. 20. May 23, 1994.
Nack, William. "The Trials of Steffi Graf," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 85, no. 21. Nov. 18, 1996.
Vecsey, George. "Graf Takes Next Step in Comeback," in The New York Times. September 2, 1998.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York