At Clinic for Young Players, Graf Emphasizes the Fun
By KAREN CROUSE
At the Harlem Tennis Center, the Hall of Fame tennis player Steffi Graf was trading shots Thursday morning with a scrawny boy using a scaled-down racket. They were playing on the backcourt of a regulation-size court, with a net stretched from the service line to the baseline, and using oversize foam balls.
The tennis clinic, sponsored by the watchmaker Longines, was part of the QuickStart program, a United States Tennis Association initiative to introduce the game to children 10 and younger. Graf, 42, and her husband, Andre Agassi, also a Hall of Famer, are spokespersons for QuickStart, which is based on the premise that the effort required to hit a ball over the net shouldn’t outweigh the fun of it.
Graf, whose earliest memories of tennis are of hitting balls in her family’ s house in Germany with a sawed-down racket over a leather couch at the age of 3, said, “With tennis at a young age, it is really overwhelming. It’s intimidating. To have a chance to play on a smaller court with a lighter racket, you have a much better chance early on to have success by connecting.”
The children of Graf and Agassi have not formed a strong attachment to tennis, their parents’ 30 combined Grand Slam singles titles notwithstanding. Given that both Graf and Agassi were pushed in tennis by overbearing fathers, it might not be so surprising that they are keen to let their children find and follow their own passions.
Jaden Gil, 9, plays baseball but has become passionate about golf since recently picking up a club he found in the family’s garage.
“He’s been crazy about it every day,” Graf said.
Jaz Elle, 7, takes piano lessons (as does her brother), and has taken an interest in hip-hop dancing and horseback riding.
Graf said, “We’re constantly saying, the best thing tennis has given us apart from finding each other is we have the chance to spend time with our kids as they grow up and be there for the baseball tournaments and the dance recitals.” She added, “Andre and I both want to learn from them more than we’re trying to teach them, because we both believe a lot of what they learn is by watching more than by anything you say.”
Of Graf’s 22 Grand Slam singles titles, five came at the United States Open. One of her most impressive fortnights at Flushing Meadows was in 1988 when she lost only 13 games in her first five matches (excluding a walkover) and then defeated Gabriela Sabatini in the final, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Asked about the play at this year’s tournament of Serena Williams, who has lost 23 games en route to the semifinals, Graf said, “To me she is the clear favorite. She misses almost a year and then comes back and wins her second tournament? To me that shows what a great athlete she is and how much talent she has. Her power and her ball-striking and athleticism is great to watch.”