Profile: Nobody to fear but her fans: Steffi Graf - tennis is easy, life is more difficult

Friday 25 June 1993 23:02

IN A WEEK of predictable tennis, some remarkable headlines. Wimbledon repeatedly sends Lendl to an early bath, but the story of Agassi's chest hair brought some excitement. We are weaned on our plucky first-round Brits, but how remarkable of Ann Jones to carry on commentating a few hours after her husband's death. And we are used to Steffi's dominance of the women's tournament, but a front-row fan hurling verbal abuse?

Actually we should be used to that, too. Steffi Graf, just 24, four times Wimbledon champion and top seed again this year, has hardly changed her game in a decade. Cold and solid, a masterly forehand, Grand Slam after Grand Slam, and all without grunting, she has always driven the fans crazy.

For most people, this means the standing ovation at the end of the tournament; for a few, it means loony tunes. Three years ago, a German teenager slit his wrists in front of her; for many years, the American millionaire James Levee courted her with gifts of Porsches and jet planes, until, at the semi-finals of the 1991 French Open, he was involved in a fist-fight with Graf's dad in the player's box. Levee claimed he was just looking for a little kindness, a bit of recognition.

Then on Tuesday, Graf's ritual slaughter of her first-round opponent was interrupted by taunts from a man she knew. 'Oh God, not him again,' she moaned, holding her forehead. The man was Kurt zum Felde, 29, screw-loose and fancy free, who slept out all night to get his front-row seat. He shouted that the foot injury of which she had complained was a con; he claimed that Monica Seles was the real number one.

Time was when all the obsessives wanted to do was fool with love letters. Though her large nose and white doughy face ruled out the beauty pageants, she had an attractive body and represented powerful independence. Her father would weed out all but the purest fan mail.

Now there is more to it: revenge, jealousy, knives. Kurt zum Felde fits into an unfolding melodrama. On 30 April, Seles, who had supplanted Graf as the world number one, was stabbed on court by a Graf fan in Hamburg: how dare Seles take Graf's crown? Graf expressed horror at what had happened, and said she wept at the side of her opponent's hospital bed. For zum Felde this was not enough.

A few weeks ago, zum Felde showed up unannounced at the Graf's family home for dinner. 'I punched him, but felt a bit sorry later,' her father says. 'It seems that he is around every day and every night. He used to follow Steffi when she went out to the video centre.'

Physically he may be harmless; mentally he could wreck a young woman's tournament, if not her life. Graf still swatted her opponent 6-0, 6-0 in 38 minutes, which may say a lot about how used to these people she has become. But for a tennis star, these fans represent the most attractive invitation to early retirement, the only aspect of the game they can't control.

Graf is the most famous German woman in the world. In her own country she is referred to as the Grafin - the countess. Sometimes she is the blond Mustermaedel (a classic example of perfect young womanhood). They stopped writing of her wealth after her first dollars 10m (to date she has earned about twice this), and have tired of stories about her sponsorship deals (Adidas, Dunlop, Opel, pasta, bikinis). They've never let up on the boyfriend-watch and quest for scandal, but Graf has always disappointed. Interviewers, bereft of anything quotable, report a list of off- court interests for which she has little time: photography, art (likes Dali), reading (fond of Kafka), music (loves Simply Red).

She was born in Mannheim, about an hour from Frankfurt, where her father sold used cars. Her family moved to nearby Bruhl when she was small. Her father was once a tennis pro, too, and ran a local coaching school: legend has it that he sawed off a junior-sized racket for his daughter when she was three, and would reward her with food treats after a number of successful returns.

It would be hard to overstate the influence of Peter Graf. Her manager, mentor and until very recently her constant companion, many now regard his control as unnatural. The German magazine Bild recently editorialised that perhaps no woman of her age should still be the 'private property' of her father.

These days Peter Graf no longer stays for entire tournaments, but it's unlikely that Steffi takes any important decision without consulting him. Their dependence is mutual. A tournament sponsor said recently: 'Steffi means more to him than anything in life. Then comes his dog. Then comes Mrs Graf.'

At 13 and four months, Graf was the second youngest player to receive an official world ranking (the first was an American who never did anything else). Such was the nature of women's tennis in the mid-Eighties that you could see the straw-haired teenager coming a mile away. For years the game had been dominated by Evert and Navratilova. The cool American, all baseline groundstrokes, and the more aggressive, fragile Czech - their rivalry took care of the ladies' game for years. It is a peculiar feature of the game that two or three players are always so far ahead of the pack; occasionally Goolagong or Wade would threaten, but the following tournament it would all be Chrissie and Martina again. In the mid-Eighties Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger looked to be the next hotshots, but with injury they faded fast.

In 1984 word spread of the new Wunderkind who looked likely to take over the world. In that year she made the last 16 at Wimbledon; the next year, aged only 16, she made the semis of the US Open. By August 1987 she was ranked the best in the world.

Graf played a similar sort of game to Evert, but she also had the most powerful forehand in the world. She used her backhand mainly defensively, and she was swift enough to run round it to turn a backhand into a forehand. She played an intense, no-nonsense game. Her coach says that in Seoul in 1988 (where she won Olympic gold), she first trained not on the courts, but on the track with the German 800-metre runners.

Before the 17-year-old Seles came on to the scene in 1990, Graf had won everything several times. Along with her compatriot Boris Becker, she was unplayable, unbeatable.

But then it all fell apart. The 1990-91 season was a disaster for her, and Seles was only part of it. It began with a skiing accident in which she broke her thumb. She was then laid low with several allergies and other illnesses.

Then her father was involved in a scandal when the nude model Nicole Meissner claimed he was the father of her child. The press exposed his drinking problem along with his infidelity (neither of which he disputed). Eventually it was left to blood tests to prove he was not the child's father.

The real loser was Steffi. She didn't win a Grand Slam tournament for 18 months; for the first time she talked of being tired, even of retiring.

She came back with another Wimbledon victory in 1991, and she has played some brilliant tennis since, but she would only regain her number one ranking after Seles was stabbed a few weeks ago. Certainly Graf is no better a player than she was five years ago.

Even in victory she has appeared to be an unhappy woman. Her money seems not to bring delight. Last year she said she was 'a dark person, who loves dark rooms'. Her favourite colour is black; one day she hopes to own a black panther.

'She seems like a wistful, melancholy girl,' says Michael Mewshaw, author of Ladies of the Court, a study of the women's tennis circuit. 'There are players on the tour who do seem happier. Repeatedly the girls on the tour said to me that they would never want their children to play professional tennis. You have few friends. Everything good that happens to you means something bad has happened to somebody else, and vice versa. It's a nomadic tribe, but one in which they are all at each other's throats.'

Graf's mental toughness occasionally dissolves. She has claimed that she is only truly free on the court (and now perhaps not even that). She loathes the business trappings and the press. She refuses to play in Italy because she was referred to as 'an ugly potato-faced German'. She has been called Little Miss Tampax, because she supposedly lost a French Open due to her period.

A German journalist who interviewed her a month ago says it can be a grim experience. 'When you ask her about her feelings, or about Monica Seles, or about Michael Bartels (the racing driver with whom she has been linked for six months) she just won't answer you. Boris Becker is much more open. Becker also has lots of friends, but Steffi doesn't'

The interview took place in the Grafs' former home, a modest bungalow in front of their present Dynasty-style house purchased at the peak of her career. Few but family have been inside.

'You see her real emotions about once a year. Two years ago, after a tournament in Leipzig, she gave her prize money to a tennis foundation in the East, and she began to cry. So rare. She told me that she wishes to be more easy, more open, like Seles or Sabatini, but that she has trained herself always to be perfect, and says she can't do anything about it.'

But what will become of her? She has had little or no education, and no time to develop outside interests. 'It's going to be hard for her to one day unplug,' Mewshaw says. 'Look at Bjorn Borg. They have the shelf life of a fruit fly.'

Acting? Singing? For Seles maybe, but hardly for Graf. A spot of Wimbledon commentary? Obscurity? Or, as both of them have seen from far too close, something worse?

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