On a cold, cheerless afternoon last February, as she was speeding past the asparagus farms that dot the countryside outside her hometown of Brühl, in southwest Germany, Steffi Graf slammed on the brakes of her black BMW and swung to a stop on the shoulder of the road. In the surreal nightmare that her life had become, she had reached the end of her tether—what she would later describe as the worst moment of her life. Sitting in her car and hearing that voice on the radio, she wanted no less than to vanish like her own breath in the winter air. At age 26, she was widely regarded as the most accomplished female player in the history of tennis. Yet nothing that she had done over her extraordinary past seemed to matter now.
There she was, on the road from Heidelberg to Brühl, caught in a maelstrom. The old, safe structure of her world had collapsed. This was the structure that her father, Peter, had built to isolate her and shield her from the darker realities of life: the distractions of big money, the probing media, the power-playing on the tennis tour, whatever threatened the mono-maniacal focus that she had brought to bear in raising and sustaining, year by year, the rarefied level of her game. Since turning pro in 1982, she had flourished within that structure, winning 18 Grand Slam singles events, more than $17 million in purses and roughly $70 million off the court. But now the sentry at the gate of her world was gone.
Peter, 58, had been arrested six months earlier on charges that he had evaded approximately $13 million in taxes on the income his daughter had earned from 1989 to '93, and he was in prison in Mannheim awaiting trial. While prosecutors had offered no evidence linking Steffi to the alleged evasions—Peter insisted that his daughter knew nothing of her own tax matters—she knew that she, too, was a suspect. The prospect of being investigated for criminal wrongdoing left her feeling exposed and terrified.
Chronic back problems and a recent operation to remove a bone spur from her left foot had cast uncertainty over her tennis future. Then, too, there was the circus that the media had made of her life, with humiliating invasions of family privacy: The German press had reported the substance of letters that Steffi's mother, Heidi, had sent to Peter in prison and of conversations that Steffi had had with him during her supervised visits.
All of this had been weighing upon Steffi as she flipped on the car radio that February afternoon and heard a commentator express disbelief that she had not known what her father had been doing with her money. The implication was that Steffi was as guilty as Peter. She had to know.... She had to know.... She had to know.
That was it. Steffi pulled over to the side of the road and sat for several minutes hunched over the wheel, the loner more alone than ever before in her life. "At that moment, really, I felt I wanted to disappear," she says. "I pulled the car over, and I was crying like crazy. I couldn't drive anymore. That was the lowest point. I felt I couldn't take it anymore. I was thinking of quitting everything. Leaving Germany, tennis. Everything."
It is eight months later, an iron-gray October morning in Brühl, and Steffi Graf has just materialized, with a toss of her golden hair, in a doorway of her new office. What is now the office building was the Grafs' home for 10 years, after Peter moved the family—Heidi, Steffi and Michael, who is three years younger than Steffi—from Mannheim in 1980, when Steffi was 11. Six years ago he bought a parcel of adjoining land, where he built an indoor and an outdoor tennis court and a three-bedroom, two-story brick house flanked by firs and a lawn that sweeps down to a forbidding, nine-foot-high brick wall that surrounds the house. The 7.5-acre estate has a fortresslike quality. A buzzer inside the main house opens the front gate. The top of the winding brick wall lined with three rows of large metal teeth suggests a medieval battlement.
The object of all this security, the young woman inside the black-and-silver sweat suit, has just come down from the house, tracing a path through the firs. "I'm sorry," she says. "I don't feel too good." She wears roughly the same expression as her companion, Max, a shy German shepherd who looks as if he has just lost his best friend. In fact, he has. So has Graf. Looking wan and weary, her face rounded by lost sleep, she is grieving over the loss of her favorite dog, Darrow, a shepherd who died only a few days before. She thought at first that he had been poisoned by one of the lunatics who have periodically haunted her life, but when the vets opened Darrow up, they found rampant cancer. "An incredible dog," Graf says. "So alert, watching me constantly, full of joy, always watching. He was very protective."
Just as her father had always been, grinning like a great white shark at her side. Just as she has been of her most delicate feelings, the ones that might betray her. "I've been protecting and suppressing them," she says. "Very carefully."
That need to remain unexposed has affected how she reacts to everything. A world traveler since 13, Graf hears no voice whispering to come home. "Where I am has never been that important to me," she says. "I am not very connected to places." Home is anywhere she can move about unmolested. So when she wants to train, she wings off to her house in Boca Raton, Fla. "Very quiet, very private—I like it like that," she says. Or to her favorite hideaway, her penthouse apartment in lower Manhattan, where she blows wisplike from her neighborhood bakery and Chinese supermarket to this museum and that gallery. "People recognize you," she says of New Yorkers, "but they don't bother you."