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The Trials Of Steffi Graf
William Nack
November 18, 1996
WITH HER FATHER IN JAIL AND HER OWN INNOCENCE BEING QUESTIONED, THE WORLD'S BEST WOMAN TENNIS PLAYER HAS FINALLY BEEN FORCED TO TAKE CONTROL OF HER LIFE
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November 18, 1996

The Trials Of Steffi Graf

WITH HER FATHER IN JAIL AND HER OWN INNOCENCE BEING QUESTIONED, THE WORLD'S BEST WOMAN TENNIS PLAYER HAS FINALLY BEEN FORCED TO TAKE CONTROL OF HER LIFE

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That U.S. Open represented Graf's first step in a new life—one in which Peter was the father-protector no more. For more than 20 years he had governed her, and about that she had no complaint. "Tennis was my part," Steffi says, "and I felt, 'O.K., you do everything else.' I was fine with it. Maybe also because I didn't know any different."

If a year ago she was 26 going on 18, today she is 27 going on 40. For the first time in her life she is a survivor. She has steered herself from the shoulder of that road outside Brühl and, in the vacuum that her father's absence created, begun to take control of her affairs and make her own decisions. She had no choice. "I needed to do this," she says.

Graf thus found herself traversing a strange terrain inhabited by species unfamiliar to her: lawyers, accountants, investment advisers. Lately she has seen as many bottom lines as baselines. She does not much fancy this new work. Yet she has hired a staff and set up an office, and although she has kept her American-based representation with Advantage International, she has formed her own company, Steffi Graf Sport, Ltd., through which she intends to promote next year's Federation Cup and, eventually, events outside tennis, such as rock concerts.

The tennis court is still her refuge, the place where she is in control and her mind is free to create. Nowhere has this been clearer than in Paris, London and New York. How she pulled off a sweep of the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year (she did not enter the Australian Open because of her foot surgery) amid the turbulence of her life remains a mystery even to her. "It is a question I've been asking myself for some time," she says. "My mind is not always on the court. No question. When it has been important, I have been able to shut everything out and concentrate. I wonder how I manage to survive all this. I am sometimes an enigma to myself."

Perhaps more puzzling has been the government's determination to keep Peter locked up before and during the trial, particularly since Steffi has put the $13 million in back taxes she allegedly owes into a government escrow account, pending an appeal of the total. Like many Germans, Steffi has come to view Peter's lengthy confinement with a cynical eye, believing he is as much a captive of his name as of any crime. "I'm sure a lot of this would have gone a lot differently with my father if there hadn't been that name," she says. "It is like he had killed somebody."

For all that Peter has put her through, Steffi says she feels neither resentment nor anger toward him. "When you know what alcohol and tablets can do to you," she says, "it's difficult to be angry."

So after more than a year of sobriety, what will Peter's role be if and when the latch is sprung? "Supportive father?" Steffi suggests. In any event, there will be no return to the way things were. Having finally come of age off the court, she appears determined to stay in control of her life. "He understands this," she says. But the most fundamental matter of the heart has changed not a whit. "I love him dearly," she says. "Nothing in that department will change. He needs help. He will need a lot of help. I know what's ahead of me."

Steffi had no inkling, in August 1995, of the journey that lay before her, a voyage full of pain but also of growth and discovery. Even in the beginning, when the headlines were the harshest, she sensed a warming shift in the way her countrymen felt toward her. On her return to Germany after that '95 U.S. Open victory, they greeted her as though they had glimpsed a human face behind that old mask. "A great many people approached and told me, 'It's fantastic how you stuck it out,' " she says. "I got so much encouragement. People were much more open toward me. I wasn't used to that. In the past they were either very loud—'Look! That's Steffi Graf over there!'—or they didn't say anything. I had never experienced this personal approach before."

A similar warming may have occurred inside Graf. When Jennifer Capriati returned to tennis in November 1994, after bouts with burnout and drugs forced her off the tour for 14 months, Graf was among the first to offer an embrace. "A very caring person," Capriati says. "And more outgoing than I've ever seen her."

On a drive from Brühl to Heidelberg last month, as she rushed at 85 mph past stands of trees whose leaves were turning from green to brightest orange and burnished gold, Graf was changing hues herself—alive and animated here, incredulous and soft-spoken there, and finally serious and dark and hauntingly sad. Recalling that this was the road whose shoulder she had needed to cry on in February, she relived all of the experience. She did not speak for several minutes. "I never talked much about this," she finally said.

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