Re: Steffi Graf Admiration Thread Vol 2
An article from the French with evidence that Steffi was not always une grincheuse teutone.
Graf: A love for Steffi
The German champion deserves the affection which she is regarded by the public of Roland-Garros: those who rub shoulders with her each year bear witness
By Katell Pommereul
24 May 1997
The months have passed, but the emotion had still not left Steffi Graf. One that she had felt during the ladies singles final of Roland-Garros against Arantxa Sanchez, last year. More than three hours of an intense battle which she nevertheless confesses she wished wouldn't have ended. "I had never known this feeling. At each change of ends, I could hear the crowd encourage me, chanting my name..." Steffi gave a surprise smile. Laughing even, as though drunk by a wave of happiness. "This final will always remain a match apart. The most magical of all. I don't know what I did to deserve this, but it was marvelous." And time has erased nothing. "But how can we not love Steffi Graf?"
The exclamation comes from a small bit of a woman with boundless energy: Patricia is responsible for the ladies' locker room of Court Central, there where joys, sorrows, and sufferings intermingle for fifteen days. Also where there are pleasant encounters, those that mark the spirit forever. "The first time I met Steffi was in 1989. Like the other players, she chose a locker, and I gave her the secret combination." Then, over the years, their relationship evolved. "At the start, it was a simple hello, then a handshake... And now it's very natural to exchange kisses... I believe that what she likes here is that it has points of reference. From one year to the other, she found the same people in the same posts, and it is for this that she feels comfortable."
Patricia became even more acquainted with the rest of the Graf family, in particular Heidi, the mother, who comes to greet her every morning and has already invited her to have breakfast while her daughter was leaving to practice at dawn... "Steffi has her little habits at Roland-Garros. She usually arrives in Paris on the Thursday before the tournament, and, even if she only practices the next day, she made an appearance at the stadium to take possession of her locker." A ritual to which Patricia yields with good grace, admitting that the idea of ceding "her" locker to another player wouldn't occur to her: "Every year, she takes the same one, and the combination is identical."
It is with a gleam of modest admiration in her eyes that Patricia evokes the character, such as she perceives it, of Steffi Graf. "I am obliged to meet all the players admitted to the big scene. Some of them are very cool, cheerful, but Steffi stands out. You really don't have the impression that she is number one in the world! She is very humble, very kind... And her attitude is the same, whether she lost or won; that is what is extraordinary about her." The trust that Steffi has accorded to Patricia manifests itself in small gestures but also in a few physical souvenirs: "She has given me tennis shoes, a racket... I also kept her runner-up plate in 1992 against Monica Seles." While asserting she is eager to see the German player again each year, Patricia does not fear the end of her career. But she admits plainly: "The day when she plays no more, I believe that I will be no longer be able to assign her locker. I would like for it to remain hers, forever."
For Catherine, "after Steffi" already began a long time ago, but is far from having turned into a drama. A ballgirl during the 1987 and 1988 editions of the tournament, the young suburbanite thought well to be gone at the end of her business. A very simple business built of exchanged smiles, of "merci" and of please uttered by the player, in matches as in training. "Edberg, Wilander, Sabatini, and Graf really stood out with their kindness and their modesty. To the point that among us, we had established a schedule rotation. Otherwise, we would have to fight to work at their matches..."
Student and tennis player herself, Catherine had to miss the four following editions of the tournament due to testing or competition. When she returns to Roland-Garros in 1993, she resumes her habits and settles in the photographers' pit, where she returns a few stray balls while Steffi practices on the center court. At the end of the session, the German comes to thank her. Catherine introduces herself: "I was a ballgirl in 1987..." Steffi adds: "Yes, and the following year also, if I'm not mistaken." The young girl can't get over it.
She will be equally surprised to hear her elder by a few years offer her tickets for the upcoming tournament. As she will on occasions at subsequent editions of the event, random encounters in the aisles of Roland-Garros. As she will do it still again at Wimbledon in 1996... "If I didn't have but a few words to define Steffi, I would say simple and generous. Sincere also. Three qualities that are just simply extraordinary, taking into account all this craziness that surrounds her."
Her conviction comes from a few free gestures or sentences exchanged here and there, during impromptu conversations. But under no circumstance would Catherine dare to assert herself to be one of the "pals" of Steffi, and still less to be her "friend." Not even a fierce fan: "I admire what she does, I admire her game and her personality. But I'm not hysterical. For example, I have never written to her because I don't want to bother, to disturb."
It is equally the concern of Michel, whose size could give reason to think that his duty at Steffi's side is titled "bodyguard." In fact, this artist of Parisian origin is her accredited chauffeur during the Parisian fortnight for many years. "The first time that I met her was in 1987. The company Opel, with which she was under contract, provided her with a car and driver. I went to go and fetch her at the airport with a photo of her in case I didn't recognize her!" The times have changed. Today, it is Steffi herself who contacted him a few days before her arrival to arrange to meet him. And their collaboration took a friendly turn. "We called from time to time, we wish each other happy birthday. She invited me several times to see her play at Wimbledon. And when she comes to Paris, we meet. Steffi had also attended the preview of my painting exhibition last year..."
Even if Michel confesses to never talking about tennis with the player, he is able to notice after eleven years how much she appreciated to come to Porte d'Auteuil. "Because of the surface, winning here is an ongoing challenge for her. As such, she does everything to have all her trumps on her side in order to come to the fore." All her trumps means, in addition to practice, to be free in her activities outside of the stadium, those which bring a few hardly foreseen visits to Paris to the program. You know, Steffi is a very simple person who wants to keep her private life, like the rest of the world. The only means to protect it in this sense is that the paparazzi do not know where she is residing during the tournament. Some would be trying to follow us on motorcycles. One tries to spot them and shake them off. And when we arrive, it's downright fun in the car!" His sudden expression is less delighted at the mention of the injuries that have marred the beginning of the German's season. Because Michel would like to see her play for another two or three years. Afterward, as he says, "we'll see..."
A future that others too want very distant. With his singsong Southwest accent, Patrick looks like an exile when he comes to stay in the capital, in order to breathe in the terre battue. The truth. The one that any tennis fan is duty bound to know. Since 1989, he is employed in the maintenance of the courts during the period of Roland-Garros. His commitment taking effect one week prior to the start of competition, he has the opportunity to follow all the players in practice. "The first time I have seen Steffi was on an adjoining court before the tournament. She said hello to me very politely, and it's a little like that how everything started."
This "everything" is something every die-hard fan must dream about. Because since this brief encounter, time has left its imprint. From a quiet hello, they have spontaneously come to exchange kisses. An additional step: "It seems that two or three times she has looked for me to find out if I was present here this year." One step more: "Every time before playing a match, she tells me if she is comfortable, if she feels fine."
When asked why, he said the Roland-Garros staff appreciate the German player so much, he does not hesitate to assert that "it is her kindness, the attention that she pays to all. Moreover, when she plays, things jostle a little bit in the underground passages. There are a lot of people to see her, there are only a few minutes. It is particularly the case among the cooks from the nearby restaurant, who would take their position to watch her play."
For eight years now, Patrick is therefore part of this stream of private spectators. An assiduousness of which he is proud: "As long as Steffi will come to Roland-Garros, I will be here. It is to see her that I am here each year." And then will occur the athletic retirement of Steffi. Only the keepsakes will remain then. The rackets, t-shirts, sweatshirts offered by the German, each season, after her final match. As ever whether it would be in victory or defeat, she would not fail to thank Patrick.