Re: Steffi Graf Admiration Thread Vol 2
It is August 13. In commemoration of the day Steffi broke free:
A Star Excuses Herself
The 30-year-old dominated tennis like no other player of her era, and she shied away from publicity like no other
14/15 August 1999
By Holger Gertz
Somehow, it was a beautiful picture, the last one of Steffi Graf's career. A symbolic picture. On the one side, the reporters with their cameras, and Steffi Graf at the table in front of them. She sat alone. No manager, no coach, no press attaché, not even a tennis racquet to hold on to. Only Steffi Graf. She opened the press conference by herself, it was four minutes after twelve when she whispered: "Today I will announce my retirement from tournament tennis." A strange sentence, spoken thus in the future tense, as though there were still a little bit more time until her farewell. But the reporters understood the sentence, how it was meant: I retire. No grace period. For a moment it was quiet. That is rare when reporters are gathered together. The event must be very great in order to make them silent.
One could have celebrated the farewell of Steffi Graf differently than in the "New York" room of a Heidelberg hotel. One could have shipped oneself to New York, to a tennis stadium, and let balloons loose into the air. But that would have been nothing for Steffi Graf. The end of her career was like the career itself; no big production, instead sending out a fax two days beforehand to the most important editorial offices in the country. It wasn't easy for her to invite the journalists. It is never easy for her to speak with them, and for the most part, she didn't do it. In press conferences after her matches, her blonde hair hung like a curtain in front of her face, spoke about her forehand and about down-the-line shots, like a surgeon speaks about his instruments. But she said nothing about herself. She locked herself up, didn't return the gaze of the fifty to a hundred pairs of eyes in front of her. She looked sad, even after victories, after a few minutes the press conference was mostly over. It differed in no way from all the other press conferences, only the scene changed: Wimbledon, Paris, Melbourne, Berlin. And Steffi's T-shirts changed: sometimes red, sometimes blue, preferably black.
The Misery of the Spotlight
Black was her favorite color, she once said. From that, journalists concluded that she had a dark soul, was melancholy, suicidal, was morbid, so to say. They were attempts at an explanation, approaches from a distance, vague diagnoses. In Heidelberg, she wore light colors. "I know I was not always simple," she said. "I wished many things would have come easier to me." It almost sounded like an apology, that's even just like Steffi Graf. One could interpret it that way, anyhow.
No one knows Steffi Graf. To this day, there is no correct portrait of Steffi Graf in any newspaper, instead loads of interpretations. Only sometimes, in a half sentence, Graf revealed a small piece of her character, as in the brief story she confided to "Die Zeit." She was at a concert given by her favorite singer Carlos Santana, but it was once again a game of hide and seek. Graf never sits in the front row at concerts, she always keeps her distance from the stage because she doesn't want to be spotted. But Santana has good eyes. He saw her, interrupted his song, and wouldn't leave off until she joined him on stage. Steffi Graf explained how bloody awful she felt at that moment, in front of three thousand people with a samba rattle in her hand: "I could have screamed."
Steffi Graf's relationship with the journalists, and through which what we call her relationship with the public, was destroyed, at the latest since the newspapers had taken on her father Peter, a used car salesman and undiplomatic tennis instructor, who had put a sawed off tennis racquet in his daughter's hand when she was four and with which they hit balls against the cellar wall for hours. While the daughter became the best player of all time, Peter Graf, who was still only called "Father Graf" in the tabloids, developed into a show-off who carried off his daughter's prize money in plastic bags, partly to avoid the taxes, who fooled around with a nude model, and landed in jail in the meantime. Graf's mother, in the players' box at almost every match, looked as though she suffered terribly from the escapades of her husband. And Steffi Graf must have felt terrible, burdened by the suspicion, maybe the certainty, that the price for her career was the breakdown of her family.
Steffi Graf was scared of questions about her family. There were absurd scenes of refusal. Once in Toronto, when a reporter mentioned her father, she ran from the room with tears in her eyes [sic]. In the summer of 1996, when she played in Germany again for the first time in a long while, at the German Open in Berlin, the reporters had to swear to the press staff of the German Tennis Federation not to snoop around too much. She granted an interview to a man from the TV station SFB, because he is an old friend of the family and always called her "Stefanie Graf," as though he must emphasize how very much he respects her. But he is also a journalist and as such it gives him the job of asking questions even when it hurts. The interview was on live TV, the other reporters held their microphones in the direction of the two as they were talking about forehands and backhands and knee problems and Graf's nephew who was eight months old at the time. "He has already brought an unbelievable amount of joy to the family," said Steffi Graf. Then the interview was over, and Steffi Graf stormed by the reporters and slapped at an impertinently outstretched TV camera with her forehand as she retreated.
Silence As Reward?
Can a woman who is the best tennis player of her era, maybe of all time, expect that as a reward for her achievement, we will keep silent about her private life? She can like to ask for the people not to be all that interested, but she can't demand their indifference. She couldn't even demand the mercy of the tabloids who hounded her in a way, like they have recently done to the former football national coach Berti Vogts. Initially, they recommended she have plastic surgery on her nose and ran digitally altered photos next to Graf's original face. Her victories didn't happen at a young enough age. Later, when she constantly had to withdraw from tournaments because of all her injuries, the tabloids wrote her off every week on their front pages in bold letters. And not only as a broken-down athlete, which would have been unfair enough, but also as a failed human being. Someone like Graf always functions as a media figure in extremes: first as a star, then as a fallen star, and when it seemed to become apparent that tearful stories about her return would have to wait, she must be portrayed as a woman in financial need, she who had earned more than 100 million Marks up to 1995. "Does she need money?" inquired "Bild am Sonntag" with hypocritical worry, with a hidden assertion worked into every question. When she came back after an operation in which her knee was taken apart and completely rebuilt, these newspapers were the first to beg her: Please, play longer.
All that, the constant alternation of praise to the heavens and damnation can also be seen as evidence that Graf's significance stretched far beyond the trappings of a white-lined rectangle. She was a social event without wanting to be one, in a country that has no entertainment star on an international scale and not even a king. Steffi Graf and her colleague Boris Becker, like from a whim of history that emerges almost at the same time and disappears almost at the same time of its own accord, were the substitute royal couple with whom the paparazzi had so much to do, like elsewhere in the world with Diana, Bill Clinton, or Michael Jackson. Becker quickly understood the rules, he played the pop star, with dark glasses and a cool look, surrounded by a gang of managers and advertising experts who hyped him when he wanted it and hid from the public the fact that his best years as an athlete had run out long ago.
Allez -- For the last time
Steffi Graf was an outstanding athlete to the very end; in a time when everywhere pills are gulped down and drugs are injected, where doping is therefore cheating, she gave the public reason to believe that someone can climb up to standard again due to an incredible amount of training. And climb over losses. Last autumn, she played once more in New York at the US Open, and lost against a player by the name of Patty Schnyder. On the official tableau on the wall of the press center, stood the name "Steffi Graff," on some notes from an interview was "Steffi Graph." She was injured again and kept her hurting hand hidden under the table during the press conference after the Schnyder match. After that, she went into hiding, practiced, and when one called up her manager Hans Engert to get an interview, he said it would certainly go smoothly soon. It never went smoothly. Martina Hingis, the number one in the world, spoke about it. Hingis talked a lot and said above all one sentence: Graf would never more be competitive.
Winter came, spring came, June came, a Saturday in Paris. It was the day on which Steffi Graf really retired with a win which she called the "most important in my career." The final of the French Open was a culmination of her career, at least the last phase of it. She lost the first set against Hingis, behind in the second, the journalists began to type their reports on their laptops. Then she won a few points, then both took a bathroom break. Graf was the first one back out and found the spectators standing, calling out: "Steffiiiii." It was a strange atmosphere, the crowd felt a sense of farewell at that particular moment. There was a general delight in the air: Allez Steffiiii, come on Steffi, win this one. And Steffi Graf, the always self-controlled, always reserved Graf, yielded to the mood, raised her arms in the air and did the Wave with the people. It was completely different than before at the Santana concert, and if she had screamed, then it would have been for joy. Hingis came back, but she made no impression on the wall created by Steffi Graf and all the people.
At the end, everyone cried, at least a little. Even the quite old reporters, who had been there when Graf won her first tournament at Hilton Head in 1986, lit cigarettes to calm themselves with trembling fingers. That was a comeback, Graf had known it better than all the doctors, journalists, opponents, than all the know-it-alls. Lifting the trophy high above your head once more and then going; letting everyone feel once more what will be missing when you aren't around anymore. That must be a dream.
After that came one more Wimbledon final, but that was only an outtake. Graf took the loss well, better than the reporters did. She knew it was over. She knew herself best of all. She practiced a little more, injured herself again a little bit, didn't feel the fire anymore, let her manager draft the fax, and retired on cool day in Heidelberg. It was Friday the thirteenth.
An unlucky day? Oh God, she didn't die. Steffi Graf looked a little sad, but also very relieved. She didn't say much that was new: She wants to travel now and take a vacation and play a few exhibitions at the end of the year. Everything is said about Steffi Graf: 30 years old, 22 Grand Slam wins, 377 weeks at number one. Maybe Number One still, a last time. Soon, all sports journalists must hand in a ballot in which they were asked to choose the German female athlete of the century. In a few weeks, the end of the century, the result will be announced. It will be clear.