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Both on and Off Court, Graf Has Come a Long Way in Past Year

September 13, 1987|JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post

NEW YORK — Peter Graf is a man with a tough reputation. He is the father, the coach and the creator of the world's No. 1 female tennis player, Steffi Graf.

In that role he has developed a reputation in the tennis world as a hard-nosed businessman, a man with a temper, a demanding taskmaster.

But when he talks about his daughter, Peter Graf sounds like any doting father. His voice is soft, his blue eyes shine and his pride is evident. He sat this morning, sipping a cola after an early practice session, talking about Steffi's social life.

"When she finds someone, he must be a tennis player or a sportsman I think," he said. "If it is not, it will be difficult for him to understand her love of tennis."

As the father talked, the daughter walked in, your basic 18-year-old. She wore faded blue jeans and a striped shirt. In one hand she carried sunglasses; in the other, an audio set. She was on her way into Manhattan to buy a birthday present for her brother, who recently turned 16.

"I'm taking him with me to choose," she said, laughing. "It's much easier that way."

She sat down next to her father, who patted her on the knee affectionately. "No husband for you, right?" he said with a grin. "Not so long as I am your father."

Steffi Graf rolled her eyes. "OK, I tell you what," Peter Graf said. "You can have a husband . . . in the next life."

Steffi Graf laughed, clearly comfortable when her father teases her. "He is the one who takes the pressure off me," she said. "People do not get angry with me. They get angry with him."

Both Grafs have come a long way, on and off court, in the last 12 months. It was here, at the U.S. Open last year, that Graf made it clear the days of domination by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were numbered.

Graf pushed Navratilova right to the brink in the semifinals, holding three match points before losing the riveting battle in a third-set tie breaker.

"After that match, everyone knew," Pam Shriver said. "It was only a matter of time until Steffi took over. We knew it was going to happen; now it has. It will be interesting to see how both parties (Graf and Navratilova) react."

Graf is watched closely by all of women's tennis. She has been on the circuit since she was 13, and because she was shy and her father so protective, she developed a reputation for being aloof.

"Last year, one of the top players came to me and said, 'Steffi never speaks to me,' " Peter Graf said. "I told her that she should be the one to go to Steffi, because Steffi is younger, so it is harder for her to go to the older ones.

"It is not easy for a young player when she comes into the top 10. Other players don't like that. Now she is No. 1, so there will be some loneliness. It is that way with all champions."

That has always been the case in men's tennis but less so in women's tennis, where Navratilova, Evert and Shriver have been friends almost from the start. But in this generation of team tennis--player, coach, parents, agent--there is less camaraderie.

Graf and Gabriela Sabatini, who are considered the next generation in the women's game, play doubles together, but they are not close. Part of that is language--the German Graf's command of English is much better than the Argentine Sabatini's. Each has her "team" to go off with after a match, so socializing is rare.

"I'm not sure her father would let Steffi get close to another player," Navratilova said. "I think she's a really nice kid, but I'm the one who instigates most of our conversation. Part of that is certainly age, but the other day I was looking at her personality profile in the WITA (Women's International Tennis Assn.) calendar and I realized we had a lot in common: same colors, same kind of music, home cooking, playing with our dogs.

"I was surprised. I thought, 'Wow, we would probably get along well if we spent time together.' But I doubt that we will."

Even though she is not close to the other players, Graf has grown in stature as a person as she has grown as a player.

Last year, after the Navratilova match, the two passed each other in the locker room doorway. Navratilova stopped to offer condolences and was surprised and a little bit hurt when Graf stalked right past her.

"She's grown up a lot in the last year," Navratilova said. "People forget she's just turned 18. She still has some changes to go through, especially emotionally, but she'll survive them like we all do. I like Steffi. I'm glad she's out here. Having her around to push me may keep me playing longer."

On the court, Graf often comes off as an automaton. She plays as if she were double-parked, wasting absolutely no time between points, walking back to the base line briskly, always ready to wind up and hit the ball again.

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