The day before Chris Evert Lloyd faced Hana Mandlikova in the semifinals of last week's Lipton Players International Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., she was asked what she thought of the other semi, between Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. "I better not say," said Evert Lloyd with a sneaky smile. "I might get myself into trouble."
Ever the diplomat, Evert Lloyd wasn't about to say what she really thought—that the jig was up. For more than a year tennis cognoscenti had been marveling at the 17-year-old Graf's amazing gifts, especially her speed and her scorching forehand. And hadn't she come within one point of knocking Navratilova out of last year's U.S. Open? At that time Graf's serve and backhand were still vulnerable, but in the ensuing five months she had obviously worked hard to turn those strokes into weapons, too. Moreover, in her first five matches at the Lipton she had looked saber sharp, dropping only 12 games all told. Said Lisa Bonder after losing 6-0, 6-1 to Graf in the quarterfinals in 36 minutes: "I've played Martina. I've played Chris. Nobody hits the ball as hard as Steffi does. I felt like I was out there feeding the ball to her to put away."
So what Evert Lloyd was saying without really saying it was that the waiting was over, the prodigy was ready to become a champion, and she would prove it by beating the No. 1 player in the world. The match wasn't even close. Graf moved better, passed better, returned better and dealt better with the blustery winds to win 6-3, 6-2. Afterward, Navratilova acknowledged that she was "awful" but only because Graf had played "almost flawless tennis. There's no two ways about it, she outplayed me.... Today she was the best player in the world, and she will be until I play her again."
In Saturday's final, Graf underscored Navratilova's assessment by routing Evert Lloyd 6-1, 6-2 in 58 minutes. In her 14-year career, Evert Lloyd has been held to three games or less by only four players—Margaret Court, Tracy Austin, Navratilova and now Graf. "I'm surprised by how easily I won," said Graf. I thought it would be a much tougher match than the one against Martina because Chris and I both play from the baseline."
Evert Lloyd, who barely had a chance to warm up, agreed. "Steffi plays like she's in a hurry," she said. "It's sort of like she wants to get off the court." And peering into her crystal ball once again, Evert Lloyd added that while "Martina is still Number 1, I wouldn't want to predict who's Number 1 at the end of the year. There's no reason why Steffi can't win all the tournaments—Wimbledon, the U.S. Open—especially now that Martina is 30 and I'm 32."
Graf's ascent has been spectacular. Consider that at the end of 1984 she was ranked No. 22, and that by the end of 1985 she still had not won a tournament, which made her pretty much like dozens of other promising young pros. Then came 1986.
Early last year, while sitting around Madison Square Garden between her matches at the Virginia Slims Championships, Graf was musing about her brand-new No. 3 ranking. "Unbelievable," she said. A month later at Amelia Island, Fla., she was gazing at a calm Atlantic and reflecting on her two-tournament winning streak (which would become four): "Unbelievable." One day last summer Steffi was sitting on her bed back home in Brühl, West Germany—a village near Heidelberg where townsfolk are as proud of Steffi as they are of the local white asparagus—awash in fan letters: "Unbelievable." Her father, Peter, surveyed the scene: "Unbelievable." Downstairs, her mother, Heidi, was slicing onions and pondering her daughter's celebrity: "Unbelievable."
By the end of the year Graf had eight tournament wins in 14 tries, three runner-up finishes, that brilliant albeit losing effort in the U.S. Open semifinals to Navratilova (Tennis magazine chose the 6-1, 6-7, 7-6, two-day battle as its Match of the Year), official earnings of $612,118 and an off-court income from endorsements and exhibitions of at least $500,000. She also defeated Navratilova and Evert Lloyd for the first time. But, alas, she failed to win a Grand Slam tournament and was still only No. 3, which led her to confide to a friend, "No. 3 doesn't count for anything." Nor, in her mind, does No. 2, which is where she is now after having overtaken Evert Lloyd on the computer two weeks ago. Except for Tracy Austin, who was ranked No. 1 or 2 for brief spells between 1979 and '81, Graf is the first player to break the Navratilova-Evert Lloyd stranglehold on the top 2 since 1978.
These days, Graf seems to have only one detractor—Mandlikova. Hardly a disinterested observer, Mandlikova sees herself as the next queen. "I think Steffi is just a new star," she says coolly, "and the other players don't know how to play her. We shall see how she plays when the pressure is on her." Says Navratilova, who has heard variations on Mandlikova's heiress-apparent refrain for years, "Steffi is a more consistent and more threatening player. Hana has been around much longer."
Graf has more or less sneaked up on the American sporting public, which to the extent it follows women's tennis is still tuned to the Chris and Martina Show. Graf plays with the dour countenance of someone who has just discovered fuel injection problems in her new Mercedes while in the left lane of the autobahn. "I like to laugh," Graf says, "but on the court, it is my work. I try to smile, but it is so difficult. I concentrate on the ball, not on my face."
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.
Graf's own father can best be described as domineering. In Peter's mind, there is one way to make Steffi No. 1, and that's his way. Nobody is going to keep her from attaining that goal. That means not letting Steffi out of his sight, being abrasive with tour officials and the media and, if a number of tour insiders are to be believed, "playing the computer" (was Steffi really too sick to play Wimbledon last year, or did Peter just not want her to risk a bad loss on grass, the surface on which she is weakest?).
Peter has been cited for illegal coaching during her matches but says, "Others do it much more than I do." Yet sitting in the sun back home in Brühl, Peter, who is the only coach his daughter has ever had, says, "I have to be strong. I have to be careful with Steffi. Some people think I push her. It is jealousy. Steffi works much harder than the other girls because she wants to. I have never pushed her. That is why she is so good. How long we play has always depended on how long she wants to play."
Maybe, but in 1979 Peter did give up his partnership in a Mannheim car dealership and his work with an insurance agency to move his family to Brühl, where he took a job as a teaching pro so that he could oversee his daughter's development. He bought a home near the town's tennis center. Not long ago, the Grafs moved—to a house next to the center. For the last 3½ years, Peter has devoted himself exclusively to his daughter's career.
For her part, Steffi says, "If I win, the money will come. I don't like to spend money too much. My father knows best." But does she have any idea how long it takes an average person to earn, say, $40,000? "Quite a while. Maybe five months?"
Already, the excesses in her life are staggering. She has won three Opels, and not long ago a wealthy American (the Grafs won't say who) gave Steffi a Porsche for upsetting Navratilova in the 1986 German Open. Pretty heady stuff for a girl who has no driver's license. It's the same old story: Now that Graf can buy almost anything she wants, people give her things. The fact is, Steffi can have anything she wants, and wants nothing. Not long ago she picked up a handbag in a store in Frankfurt, saw it cost about $33, and dismissed it as "too expensive."
Back home in Brühl one day—"Not so much goes on here," she said. "In fact, nothing goes on here, except there are a lot of mosquitoes"—Steffi was playing with her two dogs and smiling shyly. "Golly, I have a great life for 17, don't I?" she said. "Everyone would choose my life, wouldn't they?"
Graf's three-set battle with Navratilova in the U.S. Open was rated 1986's top match.
Evert Lloyd, who had hinted at a successful tournament for Graf, was her final victim.
A winner since age six, Graf has always been coached by her father, Peter (top). At left, Steffi and her ball dog, Max, back in Brühl.
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Since reaching the semifinals of last year's U.S. Open, Graf has improved her service.