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 Brühl, 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, Günter 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.