Loving the Gold

Thursday, December 05, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Peter Graf, father of icon Steffi Graf and a headline maker in his own right—if not for the best of reasons—died last Saturday in his native Germany, halfway around the world from where Steffi has lived for many years with her husband Andre Agassi and their two children.

If the news reports are accurate, Steffi visited Peter six days before his death from pancreatic cancer. It’s hard to comprehend the range of emotions Steffi must have felt upon that last visit, for Peter not only played the largest role in shaping the game of perhaps the greatest women’s tennis player of all time (Steffi won 22 Grand Slam singles titles, and nobody had a more balanced record), he also abused and betrayed her trust with astonishing arrogance and thoughtlessness. And he did it more than once.

The two main examples of Peter’s duplicity were public affairs that undoubtedly cost his daughter Grand Slam titles—in addition to causing her intense anxiety and pain. He was embroiled in an ugly extortion case in 1990, when a former Playboy model with underworld ties claimed Peter had fathered her child. Then, in 1997, Peter was convicted of failing to pay more than $7 million in taxes, for which he ended up spending 25 months in prison (Steffi was exonerated of any role in the cheat). By 2001, his disillusioned daughter was beginning her new life in Las Vegas with her mother Heidi (divorced from Peter in 1999) and Agassi, and nobody mentioned Peter Graf’s name anymore.

*****

Peter Graf may be the granddaddy of all cautionary tales in a sport bursting with them thanks to the relatively young age at which great tennis players are identified and developed. That ensures that even parents who aren’t obsessive play an out-sized role in the lives of their gifted children. Peter was obsessive, though—and the only thing more out-sized was Steffi’s talent.

I first met the Grafs when Steffi was just 16 years old, in 1986, when I went to Hilton Head Island to interview and write a profile of the astonishing prodigy. My timing was pretty good: Graf posted back-to-back wins over No. 2 seed Hana Mandlikova and top-seeded clay-queen Chris Evert to win the title.

I spent hours with the Grafs that week. At their condo, Peter dragged out composition books in which Steffi had drawn animals, boasting about her skill as an artist. He called her “My Steffi,” as if there were other Steffis around who might belong to someone else. It all got a little weird, for I couldn’t help get the feeling that while Peter clearly loved his “golden girl,” it was less in the manner of a father than a smitten suitor, or perhaps the way a prospector loves gold.

A used-car salesman who was seduced into tennis during the great boom years of the early Open era, Peter told me that when Steffi was a little girl he was still too obsessed with his own, hacker’s game to pay her much mind. But he did allow her to run string between two chairs in the basement of the Graf’s home.

Peter proudly claimed that his daughter pushed herself harder than he did. At age 9, he said, she wanted to skip the afternoon birthday party of a friend because attending would force her to miss tennis practice. “I had to make her go to the party,” he told me. “I was always telling her to slow down.”

Unfortunately, even at 16 Steffi was so painfully shy and inarticulate that she was unable to confirm or correct such claims. And while it’s true that prodigies themselves are often the equal of any tennis parent when it comes to determination and drive, the mix is almost always volatile—and never moreso than when the youngster truly has the makings of a great player. Eventually, stories emerged of Peter physically abusing Steffi, who was getting mighty good at athletically abusing all who came here way. But none of those dark tales came from Steffi’s own mouth.

I cemented a good relationship with the Grafs, and it lasted until 1987—by which time Steffi had vaulted to the summit of the game. That was before the computer rankings were born, and various outfits (including mine, Tennis magazine) named their choice for the world No. 1 ranking. It was a strange year, but suffice it to say I felt obliged to vote for Martina Navratilova as the top player.

The next time I was at a tournament with the Grafs, I saw Peter approaching the press tent at a tournament in Florida. I walked over to greet him, whereupon he stopped short, fixed me with a glare, and knowingly and slowly said: “So. Now we see what kind of a friend you are.” It was an obvious reference to my having voted for Martina over Steffi. He turned on his heels and walked away.

Well, I told myself, these things happen. I was disappointed in the man, but couldn’t say I was surprised. We fought shy of each other for a while, but in 1990 I found myself standing alongside Peter in the back of a media tent. I spontaneously said something to him about how much I admired his daughter for the way she handled herself.

It surprised me when Peter replied cordially, and muttered something about letting bygones be bygones. Our relationship was repaired, and just a few months later the paternity scandal erupted during Wimbledon. Graf played, but she lost in the semifinals. All the while, the press hounded her with questions about the seamy paternity case. At one point, she broke down in tears during a press conference and later vowed, “I will never stop hating the press after this.”

During the French Open the following year, I had drinks with Peter in Paris. I’m not even sure why he wanted to do that, unless he just needed someone in tennis to talk to. By then, he had alienated just about everyone for reasons ranging from his on-court coaching to his abuse of officials and tour administrators. The interesting thing to me at the time was that Steffi had won eight of the 10 majors she played before the scandal became public in 1990; after it was exposed, Steffi wouldn’t win one in her next four tries.

It was an awkward meeting, and I sensed through it all that Peter was either deeply in denial over his wrongdoing or trying to snooker me into accepting that somehow it all was just a big misunderstanding. At times, he seemed a little paranoid—everyone was out to get him now, because he was the coach and father of the great Steffi Graf. . . everyone was just jealous, yeah, that was it. . . the press loved dirt, somehow poor Peter had been made a victim.

It was fascinating, in a sick way, but mainly I had the impression that Peter was trying to move on, trying to continue as if those unsavory facts and reports that surfaced in July of the previous year didn’t exist. And really, what else could he do?

That Steffi had suffered an enormous blow was obvious. If there’s a trace of silver in the lining it’s that she was better prepared for the second volley, the tax evasion case in 1997. I’ve always felt that one reason Peter was able to create another mess was because his daughter was so alienated from him after the first scandal that she just wasn’t paying much attention to what he was doing. After all, that second case was just about money—it wasn’t about anything really important, like family, or fidelity.

By then, Peter probably was an isolated man getting more gratification from gold than from his golden girl. I say “probably” because Steffi has never spoken ill of her father (not for public consumption, anyway). Instead of reviling or repudiating him, she leaned on her mother Heidi and together they appeared to distance themselves from Peter. Or perhaps they simply ordered him to lay low. How could he object, after the way he’d behaved—and given his material dependence on Steffi?

Through it all, though, Peter Graf had always known how to play the “family” card. And that’s a powerful force that can trump all others in some, if not all, families. It often explains things that may otherwise appear inexplicable. In a brief memorial statement on her website, Steffi and her brother Michael wrote: “We are grateful for the sense of family he (Peter) instilled in us, which we share everyday with his grandchildren. In his spirit, we don’t take any day for granted.”

I don’t know exactly what that last sentence means, but I’m pretty sure Steffi and Michael weren’t trying to be ironic.

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