Torture and boredom, boredom and torture, that's how it is for Steffi Graf. All right, yes, there is the winning and, with it, the money, but they come too easily and bring only temporary relief. Tennis to Graf is an exercise in self-examination in which the self is always found wanting. It's painful enough to find yourself wanting, but to have to do it under public scrutiny is nearly unendurable. What are all these people looking at? Why don't they go home? Steffi Graf has a hard time being with herself, much less anybody else.
This is an article from the May 23, 1994 issue
Hers is an absurd predicament. At 24 years old, unchallenged as the No. 1 player in the world, Graf seems to have failed to do only one thing in tennis: enjoy herself. Her matches are usually foregone conclusions. She has been almost unassailable in 1994, winning six titles and losing just one of her last 38 matches. If Graf wins the French Open, which begins May 23, she would be halfway to an extravagant achievement, a second Grand Slam to add to her sweep of major championships in 1988, when she was 18.
Yet, for all that, Graf is profoundly unfulfilled. She has always competed against a personal vision of perfection as much as against her opponents. Now the quest for perfection has become the only contest. "I'm playing myself out there," she says. "The score is totally meaningless." There is one problem with playing yourself: You don't often win. "That's where the torture comes in," she says.
A good day on the court for Graf is one without a tantrum of self-disgust. At her home club near Heidelberg, Germany, she chooses the outermost court for practice. There, on the edge of a forest, shielded from view, Graf shows a side of herself that will never be seen inside a stadium: She goes berserk. Rackets dissolve into smithereens. She swats at flower boxes, anything at hand. "I'm free then," she says. "I can show my emotions. I can scream."
It seems hardly possible that this raging character is also die Gr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üfin—the Countess, as they call her in Germany. The Countess, after all, is a regal champion whose strokes fall upon her opponents like elegant slaps in the face, a player of maturity and refinement who, were she to quit tomorrow, would rank among the top five alltime greatest women. In her homeland she is a heroine of operatic proportions, more famous than Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
But today, in her oversized sweater, black jeans and canvas sneakers, a curtain of hair parted unevenly over ice-blue eyes, the Countess is just a shy young woman. She squirms uncomfortably on a white leather couch in one of the more luxurious hotel suites in Hamburg. She does not like the room. It is too bright and open, full of windows and mirrored reflections. This is the suite of a proud star; Graf is a reluctant one. "If a room is bright, it makes me feel too much in the center of things," she says. Graf hunches over a coffee table eating a lunch of oats, corn, mushrooms and carrot juice. She looks trapped, a moth surrounded by the invisible panes of her success, Graf under glass. "More and more I realize this is not my kind of life," says Graf, who chose this hotel not for its grand reputation but for its many exits. "I didn't ask for this life. I didn't want it. I just wanted to play tennis."
Graf liked the game most when she was just a car salesman's daughter from the village of Brühl who played for the sheer pleasure of hitting a ball as hard as she could. From the moment she first picked up a racket, she wanted to smack the ball, tear the cover off it. No one taught Graf the forehand, the high, ax-like stroke that would become her signature; it seemed to come to her like a reflex. "I always wanted to hit it hard," she says. "It's just in you as a child: You pick up the racket and you just play."
Graf turned pro at 13 and traveled the satellite circuit in Europe for three years, playing in futures events and qualifying tournaments. She played in gymnasiums, on hardwood floors, with her mother, Heidi, as a warmup partner. She didn't win a tournament on the senior women's tour in those years, but she is nostalgic for that time. "They were necessary experiences," she says. "You travel, you learn how to lose and you learn how to win, and you learn to appreciate."
Even then, though, insistent forces were beginning to intrude on Graf's life. She remembers a small hotel in a Swedish village where she and a group of German junior players slept in one room on cots for a week. One by one, the other girls lost and went home. Then the coach who was accompanying Graf departed, leaving her—through a misunderstanding in travel plans—alone for a night. Graf huddled on her cot, frightened. "There were windows all around," she says. Sometime in the night the doorknob turned, and she heard a man's voice, asking to come in. Graf screamed at him to go away. The door shook. Graf shoved a chest of drawers and all the other cots in front of the door. The rattling stopped for a while, then started again, the door shaking and the girl screaming for what seemed like half the night. "I screamed and screamed, and no one ever knew," she says. In the morning her mother arrived and took her home.
Intrusion is Graf's ongoing nightmare. These days it comes in the form of her stardom, but it is as threatening to Graf as a low voice at the door. In Germany, where heroes are few, she has a following that can be suffocating. As soon as she steps out through a door, she is engulfed. Feet pound, shouts go up, strobes flash. "To understand her, you have to understand the German reaction to stars," says Günter Sanders, the German Tennis Federation secretary-general, who has known Graf since she was 12. "There is a jealousy. And there are people who just want to touch her."
When she was 19, a lovesick fan attempted suicide in front of her. He showed up at her doorstep and slashed his wrists. Fans still regularly climb the garden wall of her property in Brühl, a piece of parkland she bought to try to ensure privacy.
Therefore it was horribly unsurprising when, a year ago, Graf was notified that top-ranked Monica Seles, her chief rival, had been stabbed on the court of the Rothenbaum Tennis Club in Hamburg during a changeover in a match. "Oh god," said Graf, "I hope it wasn't one of my crazy fans." Indeed, Günter Parche, a 39-year-old unemployed lathe operator from G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ársbach, in what was formerly East Germany, said afterward that his goal had been to wound Seles so that Graf could regain the No. 1 ranking, which she had lost to Seles in 1991.
Seles has not played competitively since the stabbing, and many, including Graf, wonder if her career isn't over. As for Parche, he received only a two-year suspended sentence when a judge decided he was not likely to repeat his crime. He has since returned to G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ársbach while prosecutors seek a retrial this fall.
Graf grapples awkwardly with the subject of Seles. "It's not easy for me to live with, knowing that I'm Number 1 because she was attacked," Graf says. "I'm playing such good tennis, and I would like to prove it. If Monica were around, I'd have someone to prove it against."
Without a worthy adversary Graf has resorted to contemplating the game on a more purely aesthetic plane than ever. And her idea of the perfect tennis match is a purist's reverie: She is at Wimbledon, on a faultless green lawn at Centre Court, playing against Martina Navratilova, whom she considers the greatest player of all time and her favorite opponent. The stadium is empty. They are playing for fun, not even keeping score. "No one knows," she says. "It is just for us." (When told of Graf's idea, Navratilova silently ponders the notion and then replies, "I'd do it in a second. We'd play the tennis of our lives.")
Graf's dream match carries echoes of an earlier time. As an awkward schoolgirl with few friends, Graf would have been just as happy in an empty classroom. "She had big ears, big feet, a big nose," Sanders says. "She hadn't grown into herself." Graf was either ignored or teased, in part because of her preoccupation with tennis. While other children rode bikes home from school, Graf was picked up by her father and coach, Peter, who took her to practice. When she left school at 13 to turn pro, "I didn't miss the other children," she says.
Graf is by her own description "emotionally dark." Her favorite color is black. Her bedrooms at her homes in Brühl and in Boca Raton, Fla., are almost completely black—black walls, black furnishings, black fabric. She has a habit of turning out the lights when she enters a room. Black to her is solitude and serenity. "I need to be alone a lot," she says.
Often the penalty for solitude is to be misunderstood. In the locker room Graf is regarded as distant. She rarely says hello to other players, much less stops to chat. Navratilova says she has never had an extended conversation with Graf. Chris Evert lives two blocks from her in Boca Raton, but Graf has not spoken to her in a year.
Graf's manner can quickly cross the line from aloof to rude. She has a habit of cutting people off in midsentence and turning on her heels. On the tour she treats officials curtly and has resisted efforts by the Women's Tennis Association to get her involved in the governance and promotion of the game. Her reluctance to assist in those efforts comes despite the fact that tennis is, after all, what has made Graf wealthy beyond imagination. She will pass $15 million in career earnings this season, not to mention the fortune she has garnered from endorsements. "She likes to play, she likes to win and she likes to leave," says Sanders. "And that is not possible."
Only two players have been able to cultivate a friendship with Graf: Rennae Stubbs of Australia and Patricia Tarabini of Argentina, both of whom are known on the tour for their lively sense of humor. "I need humor," Graf says. "And I need other people for their energy—or I would spend too much time alone." Off the tour Graf has two friends, both German university students, whom she considers her closest pals. She will not divulge their names or even where they go to school. Apart from them, her favorite company is her six dogs: four German shepherds, a boxer and a golden retriever puppy named Joshua.
Tarabini has tried to persuade Graf to become more outgoing and to take more joy from being No. 1. Graf likes to insist that "I am who I am." To which Tarabini says, "Is 'hello' such a big deal?"
Talking has never been easy for Graf. "I never liked to, and I never needed to, even as a child," she says. "I still don't feel comfortable talking a lot, especially publicly." Stubbs sees in Graf a deep, frustrated inarticulateness that may be one reason she hits the ball so hard, "I think Steffi has trouble communicating in general," she says. Navratilova saw that firsthand last year at the Virginia Slims Championships. As Navratilova sat in the locker room one evening after being upset by Mary Pierce, Graf dashed in the door, kissed her on the cheek and handed her a small black bracelet. Then she turned and ran out without a word.
Says one tour official, "I think the only place Steffi is supremely confident is the tennis court." But more and more Graf is seeking out people and places that have no connection to tennis. She is experiencing a newfound independence, traveling less with her family and spending more time in her favorite city, New York, where she owns a triplex in Manhattan's Soho district. She likes to haunt the art galleries and the flea markets, where the vendors know her only as a good customer. She is content in her personal life, enjoying a relationship with a young race car driver from Cologne, Michael Bartels, that has lasted more than a year. "She's grown up," Sanders says. "She's not so involved with herself and her tennis. She sees more. She's getting a little freer."
The peacefulness, and privacy, that Graf experiences away from tennis has led to thoughts of retirement. She points out that her career has already spanned more than a decade and says she can't see playing beyond two to four more years. But beneath Graf's calm discussion of retirement is a simmering energy. There remains inside her, she concedes, "an immense desire for the game."
For the moment, then, Graf is sentenced to continue her torturous experiment in private introspection and public dissection. "I don't know what they're looking at," she says. "I mean, my face isn't going to change."