The whole problem with Steffi Graf is that she isn't ours. Barely 20, she is the embodiment of everything that has shot American sport to smithereens. The world is closing in on basketball. If those Taiwanese tykes ever grow up, baseball is finished. Men's golf and tennis are long gone across the pond. And now the rivalry of the age, our beloved and very own Chrissie and Martina (well, semi-very own), is a lounge act—Lainie Kazan meets Connie Stevens—in the face of this...this Fr�ulein!
Perhaps the hardest part to swallow is that Graf is so humble, soft-spoken and polite, and she's not even a damn Kommunist or anything. And such an infant, too; she hasn't really even started her career. It's downright impossible to harbor jealousy, resentment or dislike for her. And when she suffers one of her rare defeats—as at the French Open two weeks ago—she becomes even more likable. After Arantxa Sanchez of Spain pulled off the historic upset in the championship match, Graf, who was battling a bug that left her visibly weakened, warmly embraced her conqueror at the net.
Moreover, there's the name: Stephanie Maria. Her parents, Peter and Heidi, traditionalists that they are, could have chosen Uta or Silke or Sabine. But neeeeiiin. They went with Steffi. If that isn't just too, too American precious, check the next
rainbow chart of the most popular names for female babies and see if Steffi isn't somewhere in there with Ashley. Heather and Tiffany.
What's more—what's hardly believable even—is that Graf has already won all those tennis tournaments. In the process she has buried the Evertilova axis, won the Grand, uh. Golden Slam (don't forget the gold medal she earned in Seoul after winning the four majors last year), played doubles with the Princess of Wales, hobnobbed backstage with Michael Jackson, rushed around like a K�chen with her head cut off and become one of the more recognizable citizens on any planet without a hint of undergoing a personality change. Without, in fact, becoming a star.
That's the other deal with Graf. We can love or hate or at least talk about international stars because they act the role. For instance, Katarina Witt, who comes from the other side of the Berlin Wall from Graf, haughtily skated into the public consciousness with her magnificent nose pointed due north. The Graf nose—alas, an appendage along the lines of Dick Tracy's chin—seems to elicit more response than the wicked Graf forehand, the most dominant stroke of the modern era. Otherwise, she is always just there. Rushing to the next point. Hoisting the trophy. Playing the cards. Cooking the noodles. Going to the bed—at nine o'clock sharp.
The Graf era has been longer arriving than it should have been. Everybody in tennis talks about the amazing longevity of Navratilova and Evert, but did they stay on top so long because they were so good? Or was it because Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, who should have supplanted them somewhere in the early '80s, turned out to be so bad, or at least so broken down? They shoot two-handed baseliners, don't they? Years after Austin and Jaeger abandoned the natural chain of succession, into the breach came, nay, charged, the young belle of Bruhl.
Says tour player Isabel Cueto of Aspach, West Germany, "I see Steffi in tournament when she was eight years old. She was running between the points to receive the serve. Her forehand wasn't even her best shot then. She had such a beautiful backhand. No slice or topspin, no nothing. I was nine. My parents and I couldn't believe it. They knew I would need some more lessons."
Adds another player, Eva Pfaff of K�nigstein, West Germany, "I play Steffi when she was 12 and so tiny I could hardly see her over the net. She looked like a gymnast. She was running into the corners all the time. I couldn't imagine she had such a forehand, but I found out. I won very close. Then, yes, of course, she rushed away. Three years later we play again. It was like I was nonexistent on the court."
Still. Graf didn't win her first pro tournament until three years ago, in Hilton Head, S.C. Now she has won 36. She didn't win a Grand Slam title until the French Open in 1987. Last year, she began a run of five straight Grand Slam triumphs and planted herself in a zone of domination that sent everyone else scurrying for cover. Although that glorious run ended with Sanchez's 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 wins over her in Paris, let's not forget that the defeat was only the second in 47 matches for Graf in 1989, and that she remains the odds-on favorite to begin another string of major championships, starting with Wimbledon, which gets under way in England next week. As it is, she just missed joining Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Navratilova as the only women to have won six straight Grand Slam crowns.
"Steffi will not reach her best form for two or three years at least," says her 33-year-old coach, Pavel Slozil. "To satisfy the game, that's the goal." That sounds like some kind of mystery-speak, as if Graf's only worthy opponent is tennis itself. In fact, despite the loss to Sanchez, Graf's nearest rival is Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina. On the eve of last year's Wimbledon, the Sunday Times of London featured the beauteous Sabatini on the cover of its magazine section with this mysterious billing: THE NEW QUEEN OF WIMBLEDON.