On a cold, cheerless afternoon last February, as she was
speeding past the asparagus farms that dot the countryside
outside her hometown of Bruhl, in southwest Germany, Steffi Graf
slammed on the brakes of her black BMW and swung to a stop on
the shoulder of the road. In the surreal nightmare that her life
had become, she had reached the end of her tether--what she
would later describe as the worst moment of her life. Sitting in
her car and hearing that voice on the radio, she wanted no less
than to vanish like her own breath in the winter air. At age 26,
she was widely regarded as the most accomplished female player
in the history of tennis. Yet nothing that she had done over her
extraordinary past seemed to matter now.
There she was, on the road from Heidelberg to Bruhl, caught in a
maelstrom. The old, safe structure of her world had collapsed.
This was the structure that her father, Peter, had built to
isolate her and shield her from the darker realities of life:
the distractions of big money, the probing media, the
power-playing on the tennis tour, whatever threatened the
monomaniacal focus that she had brought to bear in raising and
sustaining, year by year, the rarefied level of her game. Since
turning pro in 1982, she had flourished within that structure,
winning 18 Grand Slam singles events, more than $17 million in
purses and roughly $70 million off the court. But now the sentry
at the gate of her world was gone.
Peter, 58, had been arrested six months earlier on charges that
he had evaded approximately $13 million in taxes on the income
his daughter had earned from 1989 to '93, and he was in prison
in Mannheim awaiting trial. While prosecutors had offered no
evidence linking Steffi to the alleged evasions--Peter insisted
that his daughter knew nothing of her own tax matters--she knew
that she, too, was a suspect. The prospect of being investigated
for criminal wrongdoing left her feeling exposed and terrified.
Chronic back problems and a recent operation to remove a bone
spur from her left foot had cast uncertainty over her tennis
future. Then, too, there was the circus that the media had made
of her life, with humiliating invasions of family privacy: The
German press had reported the substance of letters that Steffi's
mother, Heidi, had sent to Peter in prison and of conversations
that Steffi had had with him during her supervised visits.
November 18, 1996
All of this had been weighing upon Steffi as she flipped on the
car radio that February afternoon and heard a commentator
express disbelief that she had not known what her father had
been doing with her money. The implication was that Steffi was
as guilty as Peter. She had to know....She had to know....She
had to know.
That was it. Steffi pulled over to the side of the road and sat
for several minutes hunched over the wheel, the loner more alone
than ever before in her life. "At that moment, really, I felt I
wanted to disappear," she says. "I pulled the car over, and I
was crying like crazy. I couldn't drive anymore. That was the
lowest point. I felt I couldn't take it anymore. I was thinking
of quitting everything. Leaving Germany, tennis. Everything."
It is eight months later, an iron-gray October morning in Bruhl,
and Steffi Graf has just materialized, with a toss of her golden
hair, in a doorway of her new office. What is now the office
building was the Grafs' home for 10 years, after Peter moved the
family--Heidi, Steffi and Michael, who is three years younger
than Steffi--from Mannheim in 1980, when Steffi was 11. Six
years ago he bought a parcel of adjoining land, where he built
an indoor and an outdoor tennis court and a three-bedroom,
two-story brick house flanked by firs and a lawn that sweeps
down to a forbidding, nine-foot-high brick wall that surrounds
the house. The 7.5-acre estate has a fortresslike quality. A
buzzer inside the main house opens the front gate. The top of
the winding brick wall lined with three rows of large metal
teeth suggests a medieval battlement.
The object of all this security, the young woman inside the
black-and-silver sweat suit, has just come down from the house,
tracing a path through the firs. "I'm sorry," she says. "I don't
feel too good." She wears roughly the same expression as her
companion, Max, a shy German shepherd who looks as if he has
just lost his best friend. In fact, he has. So has Graf. Looking
wan and weary, her face rounded by lost sleep, she is grieving
over the loss of her favorite dog, Darrow, a shepherd who died
only a few days before. She thought at first that he had been
poisoned by one of the lunatics who have periodically haunted
her life, but when the vets opened Darrow up, they found rampant
cancer. "An incredible dog," Graf says. "So alert, watching me
constantly, full of joy, always watching. He was very protective."
Just as her father had always been, grinning like a great white
shark at her side. Just as she has been of her most delicate
feelings, the ones that might betray her. "I've been protecting
and suppressing them," she says. "Very carefully."
That need to remain unexposed has affected how she reacts to
everything. A world traveler since 13, Graf hears no voice
whispering to come home. "Where I am has never been that
important to me," she says. "I am not very connected to places."
Home is anywhere she can move about unmolested. So when she
wants to train, she wings off to her house in Boca Raton, Fla.
"Very quiet, very private--I like it like that," she says. Or to
her favorite hideaway, her penthouse apartment in lower
Manhattan, where she blows wisplike from her neighborhood bakery
and Chinese supermarket to this museum and that gallery. "People
recognize you," she says of New Yorkers, "but they don't bother
Then there is Bruhl. "A quiet, sleepy town of 14,000 people,"
she says. She has been a familiar presence there for such a long
time that she can walk the town's narrow, twisting streets, past
its shops and markets, and go almost unnoticed, except for an
occasional wave from a merchant or guten Tag from a passerby.
And she can dash out her front gate and across the street for a
lunchtime bowl of broccoli and corn, or perhaps pick up a wedge
of quiche at the natural-food place. Since the conclusion of the
U.S. Open six weeks before, Graf has spent her time in Bruhl. A
staff of therapists in Heidelberg, 12 miles away, has been
working on her sore left knee, and she occasionally takes a few
days out to join German race-car driver Michael Bartels, her
boyfriend of four years, on a getaway, such as their recent trip
Bartels has been a calming buffer against the winds that have
lately swirled around Graf's life. "He's been an extremely big
help," Graf says. "He knows a lot about people, and he's been
through this with me."
Graf also hops into her BMW once a week and heads to Mannheim,
10 miles to the north, to see her father. She does not attend
his trial, which began on Sept. 5, not wanting to add yet
another ring to the circus; besides, it's painful enough to see
him in prison, where the prison guards and other visitors
intrude on their time together. Indeed, the death of Darrow is
not the only thing troubling Graf this morning in Br?hl. It is
the day after her most recent visit to her father. He has been
in prison almost 15 months, an inordinately long stretch for
someone on trial for tax evasion, and she senses that the ordeal
is taking its toll on him.
Steffi is in the office that was once her parents' bedroom. She
is sitting at the black desk of Hans Engert, a longtime family
friend whom she hired in May to take her father's place as her
personal manager. As she speaks about her relationship with
Peter, she stretches her arms forward on the desk and struggles
to find words. "It's a difficult situation," she says. "It's
changed. If you had seen him yesterday morning, you would
probably have seen what has changed. Not physically, but
mentally. I can't talk about it. It goes so deep."
Nevertheless, Peter's appearance and demeanor in court reveal
nothing of the ordeal he has endured inside the prison walls.
The day before one of Steffi's visits last month, as the court
session ended and the lawyers piled documents in portmanteaus,
Peter brightened when someone asked if he'd had a visit from his
daughter. "Steffi is coming to see me tomorrow!" he said,
beaming. Asked how he feels in general, he held out his right
hand, palm down, and rotated it slightly. "Sometimes bad,
sometimes not so bad," he said. "But I run six miles a week in
prison, and I feel well."
Twice a week since Sept. 5, Peter has left his cell and trundled
into the airless, fluorescent-lit courtroom bearing in his hand
a plastic cup of peppermint tea, the symbol of his prolonged
drying out from alcohol and drug abuse, and has taken his place
next to his lawyers. Aside from Max Schmeling--whose popularity
owed as much to Nazi racial dogma and the drumbeat of the coming
of war as it did to his athletic prowess--Steffi has been the
most celebrated athlete in German history. For years she has
been the darling of Deutschland. Unlike Boris Becker, who fled
to Monaco to escape Germany's 50% income-tax rate, Steffi has
remained loyal to her homeland. So Peter's trial, in its opening
days, was covered as no courtroom drama in Germany had been in
50 years. "This is the first show trial here since Nuremberg,"
British tabloids have nothing on their German counterparts, and
for the first couple of weeks the trial story did handsprings
across front pages from Berlin to Munich to Bonn. Three
reporters from Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, published a
book called Reiche Steffi, armes Kind (Rich Steffi, Poor Child),
depicting her life as a tennis prodigy under Peter's
Svengali-like control. The tabloid Bild published excerpts from
an 83-page confidential psychiatric profile of Peter written for
the court by a Heidelberg psychiatrist. The profile purported to
expose the roots of Peter's tragic undoing: how his deep love
for his father, Alfons, had turned to loathing after Peter
discovered that Alfons had taken a young lover while his
wife--Peter's mother, Rosemarie--lay in a hospital; how
Rosemarie had committed suicide several months later by
ingesting hydrochloric acid; and how Peter, an excitable,
insecure high school dropout, had become addicted to alcohol and
prescription drugs (mostly tranquilizers and sleeping pills) as
he faced the mounting stresses brought on by Steffi's climb in
the world of tennis.
The story was a national soap opera. In his lone statement,
delivered on the opening day of the trial before a rapt and
crowded courtroom, Peter distanced Steffi from the mess he had
made: "I hereby declare unambiguously that until 1995, our
daughter was in no way conversant with tax matters." This was
seconded by Joachim Eckardt, Peter's former tax consultant and
his codefendant at the trial. While discussing Peter's role in
the collection of tournament appearance fees, which are not
allowed under the rules of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA),
Eckardt said, "Graf's first rule was to shield Steffi."
Indeed, while the German state of Baden has laid out a case
implicating Peter in a vast tax-evasion scheme by which he sent
millions of dollars of Steffi's earnings through front companies
in Amsterdam, the Netherlands Antilles and Liechtenstein, none
of the paper in the chase has led to her. "We have seen all the
files, and we know that she is out of it, in substance," says
Franz Salditt, one of Peter's lawyers. "There is really nothing
that would point in her direction." Peter has been responsible
for paying Steffi's taxes since she started earning money on the
tour as a minor, in 1982, and he continued running interference
when she became an adult. But no one filed tax returns for
Steffi from 1989 to '93. "It was her money, but it was not her
responsibility," Salditt says. "It was her father's wish that
she concentrate on tennis. We have tax fraud only if you know
what you were doing."
"That's the way they see it," says Hubert Jobski, a state
prosecutor, who considers Steffi's culpability a matter of
interpretation. "She is not the one who pulled the strings, but
we believe she does have responsibility." In fact, under German
law, as under U.S. law, ignorance is not a defense, although it
may be considered a mitigating factor. An investigation into
Steffi's role will begin at the conclusion of Peter's trial in
In the two seasons since Peter's troubles began--a period in
which Steffi twice won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S.
Open--she has steadfastly remained her father's daughter.
Putting on her blinders, the ones Peter fitted on her years ago,
she has played through myriad injuries and distractions.
Papa Merciless, as the German press has lately taken to calling
Peter, has been a hovering, shaping presence in his daughter's
life since she was four, when he started whacking balls at her
over a string stretched across their Mannheim living room. When
Steffi was 10, Peter took her to a state-run program near Bruhl,
where she trained under Boris Breskvar, then a German Tennis
Federation coach, until she turned pro three years later. She
was Mozart with a stringed instrument, but she loved percussion.
Yet what Breskvar recalls most vividly is the discipline she
brought to the court and the affection that existed between
Steffi and Peter. "The father was a god for Steffi," Breskvar
says, "and Steffi was for him also everything. She was crazy
about tennis, but pleasing him was surely part of it."
Their bond was unbreakable, and as Steffi became a force in
tennis, Peter was right beside her--controlling her life and
business off the court while she controlled the rhythms on it.
He picked and fired her coaches, mapped her schedule, traveled
with her. Father and daughter are both devout Catholics, and on
the eve of an important match they often went to church and
prayed together. By the time Steffi, at 17, won her first Grand
Slam event, beating Martina Navratilova in the French Open final
in 1987, she was well on her way to her first million-dollar
year in earnings. Together she and Peter were on an inexorable
climb to the tennis summit.
A perfectionist driven by her father and by her own relentless
will, Steffi would don her stoical mask and use her cannon of a
forehand, the most powerful weapon in the women's game, to
overwhelm her opponents. As true as that forehand was, the mask
was no less a lie. Highly emotional and sensitive, with a
temperament more suited to a poet than to a professional
athlete, Steffi had a poignant sadness about her. There were
days when defeat would plunge her into despair. "She never
appreciated a win as much as she was devastated by a loss," says
Jim Fuhse, the WTA's publicity director and a longtime friend of
Steffi's. "She would at times go into a room and not come out
for a day."
Peter had a far more malevolent stable of demons chasing him,
not the least of which was named rum, and as Steffi stroked and
hammered her way into the longest run as the No. 1-ranked player
in tennis history--186 weeks in a row, from Aug. 17, 1987, to
March 10, 1991--Peter gradually spun out of control. Tour
regulars characterized his behavior in terms usually heard at AA
meetings: erratic, overbearing and abusive. He argued with fans
who cheered Steffi's opponents, and he insulted journalists who
criticized her play.
In 1988 and '89 he had a highly publicized dalliance with a
20-year-old nude model, publicly humiliating his family and
reenacting the betrayal for which he had so despised his father.
It was also during this time that Peter reportedly collected
cash appearance fees in plastic bags--which, unbelievable as it
may seem, Steffi has denied knowing about--and allegedly played
loose with the tax collectors, delaying payments and digging
himself ever deeper. His alleged evasions came to light in 1994
when promoter Ion Tiriac, seeking the return of a $300,000
appearance fee for a 1992 tournament from which Steffi had
withdrawn because of an injury, filed a civil suit against
Peter. That action, coming on the heels of the five years in
which no tax returns had been filed for Steffi, spurred the
authorities to delve further into the Grafs' financial empire.
For Steffi, the signal that her life would never be the same
again came one day in August 1995 when she stepped off an
airplane in Atlanta--where she had an appointment with a
therapist who was to treat her back--and headed toward the
baggage claim. Her brother, Michael, had flown down from New
York to intercept her, and when she saw him standing there,
nearly in tears, she thought that something had happened to his
pregnant wife, Elaine. Earlier that year tax agents had swept
through the Grafs' house and confiscated more than $150,000 in
cash, but Peter had assured her that it was of no consequence.
So she was hardly braced for the news Michael brought.
"Dad is in jail," he said.
Stunned, Steffi took off for New York and the U.S. Open, driving
first to Columbus, Ga., before boarding a northbound flight.
Although she and Michael went directly to her apartment when
they arrived in Manhattan, there were nearly a dozen reporters
already there, and after one night they headed to Michael and
Elaine's place. When that proved to be no safer a haven, they
checked into a hotel, then decided that the best refuge was with
friends who had a house in Connecticut. "I had to flee," Steffi
says. "I was pursued by everybody. We were always one hour ahead
of them as we moved from place to place." Steffi could not even
call her father because German tax officials did not want them
to talk, fearing the Grafs would coordinate their tales. So
Steffi simply did what Peter had always urged her to do:
concentrate and focus on the tennis.
She needed all the concentration and focus she could bring to
bear in the 1995 Open final, the most emotional match she has
ever played. Across the net was Monica Seles, making a comeback
some 29 months after a deranged partisan of Graf's, Gunter
Parche, stuck a knife in her back at a tournament in Hamburg. On
the court Seles has a black-hole stare. "She has a presence that
intimidates you," Graf says. "You feel that toughness in her,
that focus, more than in any other person." Weighed down by the
guilt she felt over Seles's stabbing and by events across the
Atlantic, Graf still triumphed. But she bolted in tears from her
postmatch press conference when questions turned to Peter.
That U.S. Open represented Graf's first step in a new life--one
in which Peter was the father-protector no more. For more than
20 years he had governed her, and about that she had no
complaint. "Tennis was my part," Steffi says, "and I felt,
'O.K., you do everything else.' I was fine with it. Maybe also
because I didn't know any different."
If a year ago she was 26 going on 18, today she is 27 going on
40. For the first time in her life she is a survivor. She has
steered herself from the shoulder of that road outside Bruhl
and, in the vacuum that her father's absence created, begun to
take control of her affairs and make her own decisions. She had
no choice. "I needed to do this," she says.
Graf thus found herself traversing a strange terrain inhabited
by species unfamiliar to her: lawyers, accountants, investment
advisers. Lately she has seen as many bottom lines as baselines.
She does not much fancy this new work. Yet she has hired a staff
and set up an office, and although she has kept her
American-based representation with Advantage International, she
has formed her own company, Steffi Graf Sport, Ltd., through
which she intends to promote next year's Federation Cup and,
eventually, events outside tennis, such as rock concerts.
The tennis court is still her refuge, the place where she is in
control and her mind is free to create. Nowhere has this been
clearer than in Paris, London and New York. How she pulled off a
sweep of the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year
(she did not enter the Australian Open because of her foot
surgery) amid the turbulence of her life remains a mystery even
to her. "It is a question I've been asking myself for some
time," she says. "My mind is not always on the court. No
question. When it has been important, I have been able to shut
everything out and concentrate. I wonder how I manage to survive
all this. I am sometimes an enigma to myself."
Perhaps more puzzling has been the government's determination to
keep Peter locked up before and during the trial, particularly
since Steffi has put the $13 million in back taxes she allegedly
owes into a government escrow account, pending an appeal of
the total. Like many Germans, Steffi has come to view Peter's
lengthy confinement with a cynical eye, believing he is as much
a captive of his name as of any crime. "I'm sure a lot of this
would have gone a lot differently with my father if there hadn't
been that name," she says. "It is like he had killed somebody."
For all that Peter has put her through, Steffi says she feels
neither resentment nor anger toward him. "When you know what
alcohol and tablets can do to you," she says, "it's difficult to
So after more than a year of sobriety, what will Peter's role be
if and when the latch is sprung? "Supportive father?" Steffi
suggests. In any event, there will be no return to the way
things were. Having finally come of age off the court, she
appears determined to stay in control of her life. "He
understands this," she says. But the most fundamental matter of
the heart has changed not a whit. "I love him dearly," she says.
"Nothing in that department will change. He needs help. He will
need a lot of help. I know what's ahead of me."
Steffi had no inkling, in August 1995, of the journey that lay
before her, a voyage full of pain but also of growth and
discovery. Even in the beginning, when the headlines were the
harshest, she sensed a warming shift in the way her countrymen
felt toward her. On her return to Germany after that '95 U.S.
Open victory, they greeted her as though they had glimpsed a
human face behind that old mask. "A great many people approached
and told me, 'It's fantastic how you stuck it out,'" she says.
"I got so much encouragement. People were much more open toward
me. I wasn't used to that. In the past they were either very
loud--'Look! That's Steffi Graf over there!'--or they didn't say
anything. I had never experienced this personal approach before."
A similar warming may have occurred inside Graf. When Jennifer
Capriati returned to tennis in November 1994, after bouts with
burnout and drugs forced her off the tour for 14 months, Graf
was among the first to offer an embrace. "A very caring person,"
Capriati says. "And more outgoing than I've ever seen her."
On a drive from Bruhl to Heidelberg last month, as she rushed at
85 mph past stands of trees whose leaves were turning from green
to brightest orange and burnished gold, Graf was changing hues
herself--alive and animated here, incredulous and soft-spoken
there, and finally serious and dark and hauntingly sad.
Recalling that this was the road whose shoulder she had needed
to cry on in February, she relived all of the experience. She
did not speak for several minutes. "I never talked much about
this," she finally said.
More than the maples in Bruhl were changing. Graf had begun to
stay put the night after winning a tournament. A few years ago,
after Graf won yet another U.S. Open, the WTA's Fuhse watched
her scurry about muttering, "I've got a plane back to Germany in
two hours." Fuhse threw up his arms and said, "You're always in
a rush to go nowhere!"
But last summer, right after winning Wimbledon, Graf was in a
van with her Swiss watch, coach Heinz Gunthardt, when they
passed a disco. "Let's go in!" Graf blurted. So Gunthardt and
the seven-time All England Club singles champion danced for
nearly three hours. "I used to win and go home," she says. "I
Physically Graf is not the player she was in 1988, when she won
the Grand Slam and the Olympic gold medal. Injuries, lost
training time and the events in Mannheim have dulled her game.
The dominant metronome of the past, the player for whom bliss
was defined by 6-0, 6-0 victories, has discovered something
else. "There is so much joy in being on the court and winning
when it is so much more difficult because of all the
circumstances," she says. "I treasure these moments so much more
than I ever did. When you're 17, you win and you win and you
just accept it. Winning was so much more natural than it is now.
Maybe my heart wasn't so much in it as it is today. It's nicer
to have these feelings. This joy!"
This adversity. This struggle. This new and very human life.
AS TRUE AS THAT CANNON FOREHAND OF STEFFI'S WAS, HER MASK OF
STOICISM WAS NO LESS A LIE.