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For Steffi Graf, Pappa Knows Best : When It Comes to Her Tennis Career, He Calls the Shots

June 29, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — Headline in a London tabloid: "My Daddy's No Monster."

You don't have to be a tennis insider to know immediately what that story is about. It has to be about Steffi and Peter, daughter and daddy.

The hottest show in tennis, Steffi and Peter Graf are in town for a scheduled two-week run at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. They have come to conquer Wimbledon, or give it their best shot.

Steffi Graf, who recently turned 18, has won seven tournaments in a row, and 41 straight matches.

In her first two matches at Wimbledon, one at love and love, she showed no signs of stumbling or crumbling under the pressure. Even on unfamiliar grass, she plays the game with classic Germ1634607216or a Rolex.

Everyone agrees she is a marvel who has reached the very top level of women's tennis at an incredibly young age. The question open to debate is: At what price?

That's where "monster" daddy comes in. Peter Graf lovingly placed a sawed-off tennis racket in his daughter's right hand when she was 3 years 10 months old. Since that day, except perhaps when Steffi eats, a racket has been in her hand.

Some say Peter pounded Steffi into championship form with an iron fist, exercising stern controls over every aspect of her life, turning her into a tennis robot. Some say he smothers her.

Certainly, for better or worse, Peter has always been there. He quit a successful career three years ago to devote his full attention to Steffi's career. He moved the family near a tennis club, and took a teaching job at the club.

Steffi probably practices longer and harder than anyone else on the tour. On the court, she is extremely business-like, with none of the outward exuberance of fellow countryman Boris Becker. Steffi has no boyfriends. She doesn't hang out much with the girls on the tour. She doesn't spend much money.

Is daddy smothering daughter? Peter Graf, in somewhat broken English, tells a story about one of the rare tennis trips he did not make with Steffi. She was playing in Chicago. Steffi phoned home, collect.

" 'Pappa,' she said, 'it is snowing and I am freezing and I have no coat.' I tell her to go buy a coat. She tells me she looked, but the only one she likes costs $230. I say, 'Steffi, you have millions, go spend your money, go get you a warm coat.' "

Peter laughs. "My Steffi," he says. "She is still such a child. She sees nothing of the real world, only the tents (the tournament grounds). This is why I must protect her.

"People say I push her. I am not popular . . . it is a price I pay."

Outwardly, Steffi seems not to be suffering at all.

"I have my tennis as I want it and it is the perfect life at the moment," she has said.

Is her father too domineering?

"He is my father," she once said. "How can a father have too much control over his daughter? He is also my coach. I think the problem is the coach and the father are the same person."

Now they are not. About three months ago, when Peter was ill, the Grafs hired a coach, Pavel Slozil. Still, there is no question who is calling the shots. Where Steffi is, Peter is never far away.

"When she plays, she knows I am watching," Peter has said, "and I know she knows."

Peter Graf was a top amateur soccer player in Germany. When he was forced to retire at 28 due to leg injuries, he took up tennis.

When Stephanie Maria Graf was only hours old, her father proclaimed that one day she would be a champion, and then he gave her that sawed-off racket before she turned four. He tied a string between two living-room settees and that was their net. They played.

If Steffi would keep a rally going for 10 hits, she would earn a bread stick. For 25, her reward would be ice cream and strawberries.

"Most of the time," Peter says, repeating the oft-told story, "on the 25th ball I would hit it too hard or so she could not return it, because you cannot have ice cream all the time."

Not exactly child abuse, in Peter's eyes.

"It was what she wanted," he says. "I would be too tired and she would be saying, 'Please, Pappa.' "

Steffi was winning tournaments by the age of 6, and at 13 she won the German Junior 18-and-Under Championship. She turned pro a year later.

"Steffi had much more talent than Boris Becker at a very young age," says Richard Shoenborn, her German Federation coach. "She was the best player in Europe at the age of 12. Boris didn't blossom until he was 15. Steffi was a born champion."

She played Wimbledon at 15 and 16, and sat out last year with an illness.

This year, Steffi has won every tournament she has entered, including the French Open three weeks ago, where she beat Martina Navratilova in the final. By winning Wimbledon this year, she will replace Martina as No. 1 in the computer rankings.

Other than natural talent, if any single element has contributed to Steffi's phenomenal rise, it is not her father, but her own sheer love of the game. They have to drag her off the practice court.

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