STEFFI GRAF passes through the tall glass doors of the Parker-Meridien hotel in midtown Manhattan in much the same way she's always arrived at or departed from the world's most prestigious tennis courts and clubhouses: In a hurry. As she enters the lobby, her pale blue eyes light up and she smiles fleetingly. It's a sweltering late-summer afternoon in the city, but Graf, who's clad in a thin gray cashmere sweater and a black skirt, looks as composed as she always did on the court.
"Sorry," she says, "I'm not late, am I? I've just come back from setting some riding stuff from Miller's," the landmark equestrian shop she visited in preparation for a vacation in Arizona. It's a mere five minutes past our appointed hour of 4 p.m., but in Eastern Graf Impatient Time, 300 seconds is akin to an eternity.
Graf has slowed down just long enough to talk about her sparkling 17-year career, during which she won 107 singles titles, including 22 Grand Slam championships (two short of Margaret Court's all-time record). Burnishing Graf's illustrious achievement is her mastery of every surface: She won seven times on Wimbledon's grass, six on Roland Garros' clay, five on Flushing Meadows' Deco Turf II, and four on Melbourne's Rebound Ace. Now she's in the midst of the Graf World Tour, a four-month, six-continent retirement party consisting of exhibitions against current and former pros, clinics with children, and a host of other events.
But despite her fame, Graf is the champion nobody really knows. Shy and protective to begin with, she became even more guarded after two scandals involving her father, Peter. For the past decade, she has presented an attractive but enigmatic persona. Only those closest to her have been allowed to learn who she is.
Trust me, I know. I've tried to do this kind of in-depth interview with Graf time and time again - and been politely and graciously refused. And I was one of the journalists who had a friendly relationship with her. But I'm not complaining: many others are still waiting.
We sit down in an empty cocktail lounge on the ground floor of the hotel to talk. Over the next few hours, it becomes clear that while Graf is a warmer person now than in her youth - and apt to laugh freely when teased - she remains incurably bashful.
This is especially true when it comes to talking about things that are more personal than her tennis game. She won't, for example, discuss her "love match" with Andre Agassi, which reportedly began shortly before the 1999 U.S. Open. (See "Her lips are sealed")
At times, Graf reaches across the small round table and turns off the tape recorder, presumably because she finds herself painted into a psychological or emotional corner, or because she's not comfortable issuing strong judgments about some of her peers for public consumption. When she reflects on her mixed-doubles partnership at Wimbledon with John McEnroe - he criticised her freely and often after she defaulted from last year's semifinals - she leaves it at this: "I'd wanted to play with John all my life: I admired his game and achievements so much. It was fun, but it was very intense, and something 1 wouldn't want to do again."
After this interview, I felt much the same way.
Last spring you began a remarkable resurgence by winning the French Open, and today you're officially retired from the game. Have the past few months been an emotional roller-coaster ride for you?
Yes, but not necessarily in the ways most people would think. Lots of different things were going on. Among them, I was in the process of breaking up with Michael (Bartels. a German auto racer), and seven years of history is a lot to undo. Also, my father told us this summer that he was going to get remarried.
In terms of tennis, I had so many nagging problems going into the Grand Slam season that I had no expectations at all. I played only one clay-court event before Roland Garros, my back was hurting again, and, worst of all, I had no confidence because my practice and playing time were minimal. So I just went out and played, with a clear mental image of what 1 wanted to do - just go for my shots and see what happens. A lot of times in the past that didn't work. In Paris, it did. It all came together in an unexpected way.
Did you have any sense that the clock was ticking, winding down to the end of your career?
I've heard that clock for a few years now. For quite a while. 1 had been asking myself if I was still going out there for the right reasons, which are to give myself to the game completely and have fun. After that high in Paris, I had something immediate to look forward to: Wimbledon. I just kept going, without thinking very much about the future at all. I suppose people were surprised when I said I wouldn't be back after I lost to Lindsay (Davenport) in the Wimbledon final. But to me that definitely was the end of something. I felt so much joy after expecting so little. I was so satisfied. That's probably why my motivation finally left me for good when that great run ended. When I went home after Wimbledon, I felt empty toward tennis, and that sensation didn't change.
When I arrived in the States two weeks later, I had to fill out the usual form for customs, telling how long I was going to stay in the U.S. I figured it out - with the U.S. Open it would be nine weeks. But I wrote down five. After Mahwah (a New Jersey exhibition), my next scheduled event was in San Diego. I didn't want to leave Boca Raton. I still didn't feel like playing. I did finally get on the plane - I just thought I had to go there to be absolutely sure about quitting, because I was getting tired of the dialogue I was conducting with myself. But once I got to San Diego, I knew for sure. I pulled out of the event because of a strain in a groin muscle, but that was a minor thing. My mind was made up and I haven't questioned the decision to retire since then, not even for a second of a second.
Most of us have our youth, college, and then the serious business of a career. You've had a career in tennis since you first started hitting a tennis ball at age four. Has that made it harder or easier to stop at age 30?
It's easier, because I have so much to look forward to, things I've fantasised about doing for so long. I was tempted at various times during my career to just disappear, to do things I really wanted. Now I can. For example, the day after the press conference (in Germany) announcing my retirement, I hopped on a plane to Edinburgh, Scotland, to spend three days at the Fringe festival (an offbeat arts and music festival featuring mostly unconventional entertainers). I just decided to go, alone, and met some British friends there.
We all know how well you handled pressure, but was there more going on under the surface than met the eye?
Oh, a lot. Maybe I handled pressure well. but it put a big strain on me. Especially because I always tried to be really professional. I had a high standard and if I didn't meet it, I tried harder still. You know what I wish sometimes? That I found a little more "easy-ness" about tennis. Sure, I tried to take pressure off: I went to the art galleries and museums and such. But still, tennis occupied my mind too much. The eating routine, the going-to-sleep routine, the waking-up routine. The schedule. It was a compulsion.
Well, it certainly got you in pretty good shape. Are you flattered when people talk about what great legs you have?
Sure! Who wouldn't be thrilled to hear that? But I've always been scared of having too many muscles, and I prefer being thinner than I often was during my career. One of the nice things about retiring is that I don't have to eat so much anymore. To play my best, I always had to weigh more than I wanted. I always felt I had to eat; I was always trying to get the energy back. I've lost a few kilos now and I feel better.
Up to and including 1988, when you won all four Grand Slams and an Olympic Gold Medal, your world revolved totally around tennis. But over the next decade, that bubble was ruptured by three traumatic events, the first of which was your father's paternity scandal, in 1990. Did that rock your world?
Yeah, I was completely unprepared. Absolutely. Not only with what happened - with the press coverage and all that - but because it truly came out of the blue. And it really hurt.
Did that event shatter your image of your father?
It made my life more difficult because I've never been comfortable in the spotlight, even in the best and happiest of times. So you can imagine how it hit me when the news about this woman (Nicole Meissner, a model with reputed German underworld connections, who claimed Peter Graf was the father of her child) came out during the Berlin tournament. Of course, the story was timed to create the most publicity in Germany.
I remember like it was yesterday. I had to play Monica (Seles) in the final of the event and I had absolutely no desire to set foot on the court. I finally decided to play, and I lost, badly. When I got back into the locker room, I smashed my racquet against the wall. I hit it so hard that I made a hole in the wall. It was the first and last time I ever did such a thing. I guess that shows how difficult it was. In some ways, my career changed for good after that. I wasn't ever the most open person, or the most communicative. This only made it worse, and for a long time. Sure, some very big mistakes were made by my father, and I wouldn't deny that. But I also had a very hard time with how sensationally things were portrayed, and how they were just put out there for all the world to see, with very little concern for me or my family. It became a big part of everything I was doing, and I felt that was wrong.
Over the years, your father would have some other problems, including alcoholism. Did you ever feel that you were responsible for any or all of his troubles?
In the beginning, I felt a little that the problems were created by me. But, ultimately, that wasn't where I put the blame. Of course, you ask yourself in various situations, "What part did I play," "What could I have done differently to maybe prevent all this from happening?" But it wasn't like we didn't try, like we thought the drinking was OK and just looked the other way. But people don't always respond or commit to changing until something happens within themselves. That didn't happen. Maybe I should have taken a stronger, more absolute position. I don't know. Honestly, I'm not sure I was strong enough at the time to handle it any differently.
Do you ever cry?
I cry a lot. I do. Yeah, I've cried after losing tennis matches, but that was early in my career. I haven't cried over a tennis match for years. I cried recently when I saw the movie The Sixth Sense , when the main character, a little boy who sees and communicates with ghosts, tries to explain to his mother why he's so scared. The ghost of her mother - his grandmother - told him the secret of a falling out between the two women. I guess I cry when things touch my heart.
Traumatic event No. 2: In April 1993, a deranged fan of yours stabbed Monica Seles in the back during a tournament in an effort ultimately successful -- to secure you the No. 1 ranking. Seles was sidelined for more than two years. The morning after the stabbing, you and Monica had a tearful meeting in the hospital. But later, she and her family accused you of not being sufficiently supportive, while you claimed that you tried calling her but weren't able to get through. What is your final word on that chain of events?
I don't want to replay what happened then because, as it happens, I saw Monica's mother, Esther, recently. We talked a little. And at some point, I'm hoping that maybe Monica and I will be able to talk about the stabbing and move on from there. But I did make an effort to talk to her after that morning in the hospital. And I understand how awful it was for Monica to go through that. I think it created great turmoil and confusion. And I really felt horrible, knowing that some fan of mine did that to her. It was a devastating blow.
How do you react to being characterised as an unfeeling or cold person?
Not at all. Anyone who thinks I'm cold doesn't know me.
The Seles incident and its aftermath leads into the larger issue of your relationships with your peers and the game. On a typical day at a tournament, you came, you won, you left. Did you feel any affection for the game or for the other players?
There are a few parts to the answer. The first has to do with how shy I was at the beginning of my career. I just didn't make friends very easily. And then, to me, tennis was always about the playing.
I loved the playing and I loved the training. I enjoy performing before a crowd, even though you wouldn't know it from my face or my body language. I took the game the only way I knew how, seriously, and it wasn't in my personality to be smiling on the court or getting involved with the crowd.
The social life is another story. I always I hated the gossiping that goes on at tournaments. It was one of the reasons I didn't play that much doubles until late in my career. When you play doubles, you often have to sit around all day between matches, and you know how it is. Girls talk. But at the same time, I think it's also a fact that I was much more open to choosing new or different practice partners than many of the other women. I enjoyed that very much.
One thing that annoys me is the common assumption that I chose to be aloof from the other players so I would be intimidating, or that I needed to keep my distance because I was competing against them. To me, a match was always just a match. Nothing more, nothing less. Never in my life did I feel I couldn't be friendly with another player because I had to compete against her. I never felt a desire or need to intimidate anybody. I was never standoffish for professional reasons. It was just my personality at the start. Later it was the need to get away from the game when I wasn't actually playing, because I was putting so much of my energy into it.
Do you believe in God?
Yes. I pray every night. But I did have a disillusioning experience when I was 18. One of my sponsors gave the (Catholic) church a car so they could get an audience with the Pope. So we went to the Vatican. They put all the people who were going to meet the Pope in different rooms, and he went from one of them to the other, reading words off a piece of paper. There was nothing about religion coming across, other than how much the church appreciated the donation and how important it was for the church and business to work together. I was surprised and I was disappointed; I expected something coming from the heart.
Is life more memorable for its disappointments or for its satisfactions?
I guess you have to look at it as a long learning experience. A lot has happened to me that I didn't expect. You have to treat all those things as ways to find out more about yourself, and others.
So what did you learn about yourself, your family, and the world you live in through the things you've endured?
One thing I learned is that tennis helped me immensely. It was a way for me to get away and put aside family problems, lawyers, everything. You know what's strange? Sometimes when your mind is occupied with something else, you can play great tennis. Not always, but sometimes. It's because the distraction fills so much of your mental space that you play instinctively, without thinking about what you're doing. It can bring out your best tennis. If you focus too much on tennis and everything you're doing on the court, you can get yourself all tied up.
The third event that significantly impacted your career was the tax-evasion charges against your father, for which he ultimately served three years in jail beginning in 1995. Were you by then jaded to scandal?
I don't think you're ever prepared for those kinds of things. I got the news when I got off a plane from Atlanta, en route to getting some physical therapy for a knee injury. This guy travelling with me said, "Look, there's your brother Michael." I had this terrible feeling, because at the time Michael was living in New York, with his pregnant wife, Elaine. (Michael, now 28, is a commercial and film producer). My first reaction was that something went wrong with the pregnancy. I went right over to him and he just said. "Father's in jail. It has something to do with taxes." So it started all over again.
One of the most frustrating things is that when ever I had a big problem, like that one, I just wanted to step back from it so I could evaluate the situation objectively, but I couldn't do that. I've lived, uncomfortably, in the spotlight. I couldn't escape into my work, because the press was always there, ready to remind me, wanting answers or comments, often before I was ready to give them.
Your silence during this time probably led some people to assume that you tacitly approved of your father's manipulation of your finances. Did you know what he was doing?
I didn't know anything about my money, never mind the more complicated issues of managing it. I was just too young. But I got smarter, fast. It changed my view of financial things. I have a lady who works on my taxes now, and I've gotten interested in things like my investments. It's actually fun. Before, I took money for granted. So much was focused on my tennis. Whatever else anyone says about my father, he did a good job of keeping me free to concentrate on tennis.
We know a lot - maybe too much - about your father, but we don't know a great deal about your mom, Heidi.
My mother is extremely warm, caring, and loving. She has always been completely supportive. She can take this machine apart (Graf points at the tape recorder) and, without even looking at the service manual, put it back together again. I think I have two left hands when it comes to practical things like that, and if that's the case, then she has two right hands. Apart from that, she can spend hours on the computer, chatting with friends, helping to operate my website (Stefanie-Graf.com). We're very conscientious about the website. My mother reads a lot of the mail that comes through on it and often shows it to me. Mother also cooks very well. My favourite dish of hers is pancakes. Schnitzel dishes also. She really likes sports, too. She was a good club-level tennis player. Unfortunately, after Michael was born, she developed back problems. Her vertebrae were shifting downward. It was so painful that she decided to have an operation, even though there was a 50 per cent chance she would end up paralysed.
Injuries have played a prominent role in your career. You were such a prodigy: when did you first have a sense of your own mortality?
That was in 1994, when my back went out. It was very painful for a few months and then it just disappeared. It came and went until I had my last knee operation, in 1997. It comes from a bone spur. It's so unusual that when a doctor sees it, he calls all his colleagues over and says, "Wow, come check this out, you won't believe it."
The pain only became unmanageable if I did a lot of running. Unfortunately, I like to run. I've been clocked a few times by trainers from the German sports establishment. I've been told that I might have had a chance at an Olympic career in the 800-metre event. But I haven't been able to jog for quite some time, even though now and then I try. Fortunately, I can play tennis for hours straight, and the on-court work - hitting balls and playing points - is what I like best.
At the worst of times, physically, how arduous was it for you to prepare and play a match?
Well, it always took a lot of time. And a lot of Advil. On a typical day, I might want to practice, say, two hours. When you add another two or three hours of physical therapy and treatment to the routine, before and after your workout, it makes for quite a full day.
Then there was the endless search for new or different therapies. I've done a lot of that, and found some pretty wild techniques. There's one therapy, called Schroepfen. that I've undergone a few times in Japan with this doctor who doesn't speak any English at all. He uses a small instrument to make tiny holes in the skin where you have an injury or pain, and then he applies a kind of suction ball to the area. Theoretically, the ball sucks out the bad blood, but it also leaves a black-and-blue mark wherever it's placed. When I came back from a session and people saw me with all these marks, they would be astonished, like "What happened to you?" I saw the Japanese doctor again earlier this year, for an arm problem. When I returned to Germany and saw my own doctor, she looked at the marks and asked what I'd done to myself. When I explained the therapy, she just started cracking up. I've done things like that partly because just the thought of an injection screws me up so badly. I hate injections.
Even with your ailments, you won 22 Grand Slam titles, just two short of Margaret Court's record. You always denied thinking about breaking her record. How could you not have thought about it?
Of course I was aware of Court's record. Everybody kept reminding me, even if I wanted to forget it. But believe it or not, breaking the record was never a goal of mine, and doing it or not made absolutely no difference to me. I'm comfortable with what I did achieve, and I'm much more about feeling than doing these days. And what I feel is that I have nothing left. I really believe that. So it doesn't matter, does it?
You'll go down as one of the greatest players ever. Yet your game was in many ways unorthodox, even homemade, with that high service toss, that late preparation on your forehand. Do you think you would have had a better record if you'd been trained to play a more classic style?
So much of my game was in place, and habitual to me, by the time I began to play at the top level. It would have been difficult to change. The only thing I feel I would have done differently was to develop more of a topspin backhand. I worked on that over the years, and everybody always talked about it. But when it was really important in a match, I always relied on my slice. If I had to start all over, I would love to have a two-handed backhand. I know it would cut down my reach, but with my speed, I could have made up for that. What it would have given me is a real weapon for returning serve.
You're so efficient and practical, as a player and seemingly as a person. Did you have any superstitions or eccentricities about your training rituals or gear?
When I was young, my father drilled into me that all racquets are the same. But I did slowly get into the habit of putting the six or eight racquets in my bag in a certain order, with the one that felt best closest to the outside. Sometimes my coach, Heinz Gunthardt, would run over to grab a racquet to hit with and I would be like, "Wait, Heinz! Which racquet did you grab?" I did like to string my Wilson Pro Staff 7.1 much tighter than most other women, at 29-1/2 kilos (65 pounds), which Heinz always said was much too tight for the head size (85 square inches) of the frame. Usually, I would use one frame through two or three string jobs and then I'd retire it. I have stacks of old frames somewhere at home.
What was the last book you read?
635 Days in Ice by Alfred Easing. It's an amazing story about crossing Antarctica in 1913. A journalist friend of mine in Germany also gave me a volume of (German novelist) Max Fritsch's diaries. I delve into that now and then.
For those readers who don't have an innate affection for pets, why do you love dogs?
Anything that comes to you so natural, so pure, is hard to explain. I'm sure it has something to do with growing up with a dog. I wasn't very outgoing, so my dog, a boxer named Conny, was very special to me. I feel good around animals, and love animals in general. And I think they feel all right around me, too. Even bad dogs seem to love me. There was a particularly aggressive boxer named Ben at the club where I played as a little girl, and the lady who attended the courts was always warning people not to go near the dog. One morning, my mother was looking everywhere for me at the courts and she finally found me, sitting next to the "bad" dog, petting it and playing with it.
Some people suggest that those who love dogs do so because they're so obedient. And you've always had a reputation for refusing to do things that didn't feel right. All of which suggests that you're a control freak. Any truth to that?
I don't think so. I've always wanted to have somebody lead me, but maybe I only let it happen to a certain point. I do feel a need to be in a comfortable environment, and if I don't have it, I'm out of there.
I may have a different perspective from most people on this subject. I've always been asked to do many things; it's part of my job. Every one of those things is important to the person trying to do them with me, whether it's an interview, an appearance, a telephone call, whatever. Many times, I say "no" to something, and the person trying to make it happen just keeps asking, and explaining, and after two more times I say "yes" to it. I can't tell you how many times that has happened. Funny as it may sound, I'm actually feeling like I want to be more, well, persistent about doing what I want.
At almost any given time in your career, you could have arranged to have a date with just about any man on the planet. Yet you seem to have led an exceptionally low-key romantic life, at least until Andre. Weren't you ever boy or man-crazy?
Boys didn't even come into my mind until I was about 20 years old. I think the tennis kept me too busy and focused. My shyness played a part, too. Plus, I've never been one to go out for a wild night of dancing, whatever, with someone I barely know. I always looked for long-range relationships. I'm interested in building trust, letting a relationship grow, getting comfortable with each other. And that wasn't easy with my way of life. I've only had two serious boyfriends before Andre.
One was an American photographer, whose name I'd rather keep private, whom I saw for about four years early in my career. And then I was with Michael (Bartels) for seven years. It's a long time, which is why this breakup has been very tough on both of us. We had some intense times in that period, and I have to say he was always there for me. But it got to the point where it just wasn't working anymore.
Is having a family of your own important to you?
I guess I'm finding out about myself in that way right now. I think you can't always plan what happens. But to tell you the truth, I don't know if I want to have kids or not. I guess you're supposed to want to have kids, but the reality is that it hasn't been something that's preoccupied my thoughts, even during quiet times. But I'm more conscious of children and the joy they can bring to your life because of my brother's two kids, Torren 4, and Talia, 2. I really love them. I guess life just takes people on different roads, and right now, I don't know where my road is taking me.
What's your most precious possession in the world?
I don't have one. I don't care that much about things. Mostly, I care about family, friends, and my four dogs. Two of them are Schaferhundes, or German shepherds. Max and Dusty. Then I have Joshua, a golden retriever who lives in Florida, and Saskia, a mixed-breed stray I found at the Moscow Airport when she was just a few weeks old and insisted on bringing home with me.
No favourite trophies or photos in your house?
Right now, I don't even have a house. I live in an apartment in Heidelberg, about 50 miles south of Frankfurt, and I can't even have my dogs with me. They stay at my father's house. But I'm in the process of looking for my own place, in Germany, even though I plan to keep a home here in the States.
But no, I didn't keep one trophy, one picture, not even one racquet, tennis skirt, or can of balls at my home. I used to keep my tennis equipment and clothing there while I was still playing, but not anymore. Most of my tennis-related things are at my office in Mannheim.
What's the single biggest thing you feel you missed out on by being so dedicated to your career?
Time. Time to be spontaneous, to take things as they come. But I don't fool myself. I've always accepted the fact that because of tennis, I couldn't allow myself to be spontaneous.
What, in the immediate future, are you most excited about?
Finding a home where my dogs can always be with me, for one. Then I'm excited about horseback riding and also about scuba diving. Ever since I did an underwater commercial for Apollonaris (a popular brand of mineral water in Germany), I've wanted to dive. I have a desire to go down and swim with the sharks. I have a series of videotapes from a Discovery Channel series on sharks. I'm intrigued by them because they have this amazing power and strength, but also this elegance that I find very attractive. I look forward to getting more involved in studying and practicing photography. I'm already quite involved in junior tennis development in Germany and will also work more with the charity Children for Tomorrow. The organisation helps kids who have suffered trauma from war, persecution, and violence. I first heard of it a few years ago from a doctor in Hamburg. Ever since, I've wanted to make a contribution. I'm on the three-person board; I contribute money and time trying to publicise it. In October I'll be going to Harare (Zimbabwe), where the organisation works with impoverished children, to shoot footage for a publicity campaign.
You've been advising and, with the help of sponsors, financing the careers of three junior girls in Germany. What's the current status of the Steffi Graf team?
Two of the original three girls (Mia Buric, 17, and Caroline Raba, 16) are continuing to train and play junior events, but the third one, Julia Biffar, recently quit the game. And the truth is that I admire her decision, which took a lot of strength to make. She was just 16 and working hard, but she realised that she didn't have it to go where she wanted. She told me, "I had certain goals and expectations, and no matter how hard I work, I'm still too far from realising them." It must be hard for a kid at that age to be realistic, to give up on a dream. It took a lot of courage for her to do that and I wish her all the luck in the world in whatever else she tries. But I still have the two girls, and we're in the process of bringing a number of new, young players on board.
You sound sympathetic toward Biffar. Do you feel you know anything about failure?
I know very well what it is like to fail. I definitely feel like I've failed in a few things in my life. I've never been very confident, and that showed a lot of times in my failing to communicate. Let's put it this way: A lot of times, I failed at communicating on different levels - with my family, with the press, with others, But I'm trying, and now I have time to work on that too.
(Reprinted by permission of Miller Sports Group LLC. The Sportstar is the exclusive licensee of Miller Sports Group LLC. The interview first appeared in Sportstar edition dated March 4 2000)
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