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.
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 Gräfin—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."