"Oh, no," replies the best women's tennis player in the world. "We hope we're not bothering you."
We hoped we wouldn't be bothering Graf when we asked her to pose for this issue. She said she'd be happy to. Earlier that morning, while her hair was being blown dry, brushed, sprayed and teased by hairstylist François Ilnseher, Graf discussed her reasons for deciding to appear in SI in swimwear rather than her usual tennis whites. "I like photography," she says, "and the pictures in your swimsuit issue are always incredible. I mean, you can always find a nice girl in a nice suit, but what makes SI so special is the aesthetics. The background, the light, the color, the composition is always so good. That's why I am looking forward to this."
I nod knowingly, as if Graf and I are in complete agreement on this one. The truth is, if I have ever given any thought to the composition of one of our swimsuit photos, that thought was something like: Nice clamshell bikini on Jasmeen there—too bad they couldn't have found some smaller clams. If some topless supermodel is photographed behind a strategically placed palm frond, I do not, to my discredit, admire the way the flora brings out the green in her eyes. I'm thinking, I'd like to be a beetle on that leaf.
Graf is here to make art, not strudel. It is for the sake of art that she has flown into this resort town at the tip of the Baja peninsula, arriving at 9:30 the previous night and then arising at five this morning to submit to the twin ordeals of having her hair done and her face made up. We are on the beach by 6:15. Trudging through the sand on our way to the first location, I fall into step alongside SI design director Steve Hoffman. Just because Hoffman has brought his golf clubs to Mexico doesn't mean his presence isn't vital to the operation. He explains to me why in hell we're up at this hour—something about the oblique angle of the sun, the special qualities of morning light.
Nice to see Iooss again. Here is a man who clearly has cut some sort of Faustian bargain: handsome guy, hugely talented, spends half his life taking pictures of the world's most beautiful women. But every shoot isn't a day at the beach. I last watched him work a decade ago, when I sat in on a Hulk Hogan cover shoot. The Hulkster was as petulant as the most difficult swimsuit model: He refused to be photographed from the right (his left arm was the more buff, he insisted) and frequently interrupted the proceedings to do push-ups (the better to maintain a pumped-up state).
Things with Graf begin more smoothly. Soon Iooss has her striking a variety of poses. "Bring the body this way.... Shoulder up a little more.... O.K., do that again with just a glint of a smile." During breaks she dons a white terry-cloth robe. At the end of one such break, Iooss commands, "Take off your robe."
"That should be the title of his autobiography," says Hoffman.
By now Graf is in her third bikini of the morning; it is black with white piping that makes me think (forgive me, Lord) of icing. From a construction site adjacent to the hotel, a half-dozen laborers are leering down at her. Hey, Stef, I say, you want I should go teach those guys some manners? Realizing the insincerity of my offer—these hombres have tattoos and claw hammers—Graf properly ignores me.
I'm getting a lot of that this morning. Everyone else is scurrying around with something important to do. I'm taking the odd note, trying to make it look as if I'm working, but no one's buying it. When makeup artist Heidi Lee, who is wearing excruciatingly hip purple stretch pants—and who, frankly, intimidates me—applies something to Graf's lips, I ask, lamely, "A little lip liner?"
"Lip gloss," says Lee.