Recently, though, she has shown signs of opening up. After last week's win over Navratilova, she was asked if she might not have been a little nervous in the final game. "Not really," she said. "After the changeover, I heard a guy in the stands say in German, 'Come on, get it.' I started to laugh. I don't know why. I just started laughing."
If she hasn't always been Little Miss Sunshine, Graf has at least dazzled fans with her forehand, which has become the single most feared shot in the game. She likes nothing better than to step around a backhand and hammer a forehand to the corner. Consequently, opponents naturally play her backhand as much as possible, and that constant drill has lifted that part of her game. Once, she had only a backhand slice; now she has a topspin drive. Further, her serve has improved vastly over last year. She is a natural volleyer (last week she won five of five points at net against Navratilova and two of two against Evert Lloyd), but she is still uncomfortable coming to the net. She has always had great speed and quickness. "Little wings on her feet," says Joanne Russell, a veteran player.
Says Graf of her game: "I am never afraid to lose to anybody. All I want to do is play good tennis and have fun. I want so much to hit it hard—and have it go in." Lee Jackson, tour director and referee for the Women's International Tennis Association, says, "I am amazed at how talented that child is."
Adds Ted Tinling, the majordomo of the women's tour, "She, more than any of the others, understands the necessity of getting the ball back one more time." Graf has had that understanding since she was four (the same year Evert won 12 tournaments and $152,002) and her father sawed off the end of a racket so she could handle it. Peter moved the sofa into the center of the family room, where it doubled as a net.
"If she could get the ball back 10 times, I would reward her with a bread-stick," he says. "Then I told her if she could get it back 25 times, we would make a party with ice cream and hot strawberries." Steffi got her party. Thereafter, Peter confesses, when Steffi was getting ready to return the 25th ball, he would hit it so that she couldn't return it. "You can't have parties all the time," he says.
Which suits his daughter just fine, because nothing interests her but tennis. She tried going to a disco not long ago, but the noise prompted her to call her mother for a lift home. She has no close friends back home in Brühl. "The thing that girls want to do is talk about boys, boys, boys," says Graf, who turned pro at 13, "and go to discos. Those are not what I want to do at the moment." Fellow pro and countrywoman Claudia KohdeKilsch says, "Steffi has always been crazy about the tennis. That's all."
Publicists have tried to advance stories that Graf likes to water ski, likes to hike, likes to fish, likes to play soccer, likes her schoolwork. The fact is, she plays tennis. Period. Well, to be fair, she does play a little backgammon and canasta. She says she listens to the Bad Boys, and because she can tear up some lettuce and dump vinegar and oil on it, she has gained an undeserved reputation as a superior salad maker.
So if Graf possesses all the tools to be the best, what clouds could conceivably darken so bright a future? To date, she has not suffered any tennis-related injuries, though a viral infection at last year's French Open caused her to miss several tournaments, including Wimbledon. Then later in the summer, at the Federation Cup in Prague, a table umbrella fell on her foot. Her big toe was broken and she was forced to withdraw from the tournament.
As long as she remains physically sound, the most obvious potential roadblock is that dread tennis disease, burnout. Countless young girls have zoomed onto the sports pages, only to disappear from sight just as quickly. The most celebrated cases are Austin and Andrea Jaeger. After injuring her back in 1981 Austin made several comebacks and then left the circuit. Says Tracy, "Steffi doesn't know it, but she is going through the most exciting time in her life. Everything is new. Going up, that's fun. Staying there is the tough part. But I see her as No. 1. She's not a fluke."
Many girls seem to suffer burnout in tennis at about the same time they discover Friday and Saturday nights. Says Peter, "Anybody knows that won't happen. Look at her. You think she'll quit?" Indeed, Steffi certainly appears to have the heart a champion needs for the long haul. She even seems to relish her three-and four-hour workouts with her traveling sparring partner, Czechoslovakian Davis Cupper Pavel Slozil. But who knows. After all, Austin positively raged at a tennis ball, and she quit. Even more relevant, perhaps, Jaeger is believed to have walked away from the game at least in part to escape the demands of an overbearing father.