Re: Steffi Graf Admiration Thread Vol 2
Navratilova, Lloyd Finally May Have Found Some Company ... : Three Is a Crowd, but Graf Doesn't Mind
February 07, 1987
Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd are still standing, still No. 1 and No. 2 atop the world of women's tennis. They have withstood the first wave, the second wave and the third wave of young would-be replacements.
Tracy Austin was the first. She posed a strong threat to the Navratilova-Lloyd regime but was defeated by nagging back and shoulder injuries.
In the second wave, Andrea Jaeger defeated herself. And although Pam Shriver and Hana Mandlikova may have had the physical skills, they also may have lacked the necessary psychological equipment.
Gabriela Sabatini was the third wave. She caught the fancy of the tennis world in 1985, but her '86 results seem to have shown her to be just another pretty face.
So now, there is a new entry on the list of those who would be queen. Her name is Steffi Graf. She is 17.
In a five-week stretch last spring, the West German defeated Lloyd and Navratilova. It was a rare clean sweep of the big two.
Is there, at last, a big three?
"I always mention Steffi's name first when I talk about the up-and-coming girls on the tour," Lloyd said last year. "She has a monster forehand, and in terms of pace, it is the best in women's tennis."
Ted Tinling, who serves as master of ceremonies at Virginia Slims events and has followed women's tennis for nearly 60 years, said: "We always thought she was the most hopeful. Chris Evert herself promoted Steffi's game. Now she's probably sorry she said those things."
--Graf compiled a 24-match winning streak, including 4 tournament victories last spring. She fought off match points in two of those finals, one against Sabatini at the U.S. Clay Courts and the other against another West German, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, in the WTA Championships.
--Her victories over Lloyd and Navratilova were in straight sets. Graf beat Lloyd, 6-4, 7-5, last April and defeated Navratilova, 6-2, 6-3, in May at the German Open.
--In the 1986 U.S. Open, Graf established herself as a genuine threat to the long-running Chris and Martina show. Her semifinal against Navratilova was the match of the year in women's tennis.
The exciting, tense, three-set match, which took two days to complete because of rain, even had the male players screaming at the television set in their locker room. After losing the first set, 6-1, Graf won the second in a tiebreaker and held three match points in the third before Navratilova prevailed.
At first, after the victory over Lloyd last spring, Graf seemed almost stunned by her new postion. Becoming No. 3 in the world wasn't in the plans at the beginning of 1986. Neither were victories over Lloyd and Navratilova.
"For the first time, it is really strange," Graf said in an interview last year. "You were always looking at the top of the draw and you saw Martina or Evert there. Now everybody expects me to win and there's a little more pressure on me. But I can handle it pretty good ... I hope."
Whether Graf can handle the pressure will likely manifest itself during the next Grand Slam events. She came down with a virus at the French Open and missed Wimbledon because of the illness. But nerves were no problem at the U.S. Open. In the second and third sets against Navratilova, she appeared supremely confident.
That, however, wasn't the case the night before. When rain interrupted play, Graf was down, 1-4, and Navratilova was playing brilliantly.
"That evening, I had a bad feeling," Graf recalled. "I thought, 'What am I going to do?' Before I played her, I had practiced against a lefty. But in the morning before we played again, I thought, 'I don't give a damn.' It didn't matter who I played against--lefty or righty."
When Navratilova won the first set, Graf's main goal was to try to win some more games. She started playing well and managed to hit some sharp passing shots. Then came the two tiebreakers, with Navratilova coming up the winner in the third set.
"After it was over, the crowd was really standing behind me and I felt so good," Graf said. "The people were the ones who pushed me and Martina to the next level. Just standing there, I was chilled on the court. It was such a good feeling. I wanted to do something, to say something to the crowd."
Afterward, Graf recalled that her father, Peter, told her that she had played so well. What else could she have done?
"I told him, 'I could have won.' "
In this country--and in tournaments such as the Newsweek Women's event she is playing in this weekend in Indian Wells, Calif.--Graf is probably the least known of the world's top five women players. She's well known in Germany but is overshadowed by Boris Becker, which suits her just fine.
And for a long time, she played in the shadow of Sabatini, who is now her doubles partner. At the 1985 French Open and Wimbledon, Sabatini was besieged by interview requests. As for Graf, it was: Steffi who?
"I wasn't angry about it or anything," Graf said. "She's a very good player. I didn't mind it. Yeah, it does take some (pressure) off. Everybody was looking after her. They knew her more. And they always wanted to see her. And I had time off."
That time off gave Graf the opportunity to refine her serve and backhand in relative anonymity. Some have felt, including Graf, that the attention lavished upon Sabatini helped Graf progress faster.
The life of anonymity has started to change. Obviously, the tennis world and general sporting public have lots of questions about Graf. Beating Lloyd and Navratilova will do that.
For instance, who is Steffi Graf?
"It's so hard to say," she said. "I would say I'm usually shy, and I hate to talk too much. After my first win, I felt more comfortable with everything. I was more relaxed. I am somebody, who at first, is quiet. I need some time to get used to the person. Usually I am not someone who is that open.
"But I am getting used to it more and more. And I mostly know the answers to the questions."
Hobbies? Shopping and cooking.
Favorite groups? Lionel Richie, Phil Collins, Wham!
Favorite team? Lakers.
Favorite movie? "Platoon."
But one question stumped her. Graf was talking about another hobby. She likes to collect little liquor bottles, like the ones you get on airplanes.
"But most of them are empty," she said, shrugging. "I'm trying to get more full ones."
Why are they empty?
"Not me," she said, laughing and looking embarrassed.
It isn't unusual for athletes to take on different characteristics once they start competing. Graf fits this category. Her court demeanor is a stark contrast to her off-court personality. In tense matches, she sometimes yells in German after missing on a big point or bangs her racket on the court after what she perceives as a bad call.
Graf claims she does have fun on the court, despite evidence to the contrary.
"I guess that's the way it looks, everybody's told me that," she said. "I know. Whenever everybody says I should smile more on the court, that's impossible for me. I'm just so concentrated out there. Even when my father and me are practicing, my father will say, 'You are looking so . . . not relaxed.' It's so hard for me."
It is, indeed, hard for someone who hates to lose. At anything. She dislikes even losing at cards. Before her matches, Graf plays cards or backgammon with her father. To put her in a good frame of mine, Peter Graf usually lets her win.
"I'm horrible," she said. "I get so mad at myself if I lose. I don't like it when he lets me win, either."
Almost every young player has a coach or mentor to help combat the stress. In Graf's case, the duty rests with her coach and father.
"I never had to push Steffi," Peter Graf said. "I never had to say, 'Steffi, please play tennis.' She insisted. When she was young, I never said, 'Steffi, want to play tennis?' I only had to say, 'Slowly.' "
Peter Graf is as surprised as his daughter about her rapid climb up the tennis ladder.
"Steffi makes not only one step, she makes some steps more," he said. "She has unbelieveable discipline. She always wants to win. Whether it is in backgammon or cards or tennis. She's a winner.
"Steffi now has a very good chance to stay in the top three. But I am not American. Americans are more, 'Oh, you are the next star.' "
Until recently, the American way and Peter Graf were on a collision course. He was regarded on the tour as an ogre. He frequently chastised tour officials and the media. Once, after Steffi had lost to Navratilova in a tournament final, he tried to pull her off the court before the presentation ceremony.
Things started to improve upon the realization that he needed a better image.
"That was not right from us," Peter Graf said of the tournament incident. "I was too much at fault. I still have much to work on. But I think we have also worked on my image now."
It got to the point where Peter Graf decided not to travel as extensively with his daughter. She said her father never liked the grueling travel and prefers to stay home in Bruehl to work on business projects.
Still, Graf needed a coach for the times her father stayed home. Pavel Slozil, Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player, entered the picture three months ago. Slozil, who continues to play the circuit occasionally, had met Peter Graf at tournaments.
When Graf took time off after the Virginia Slims championship, she worked with Slozil on improving her backhand, her passing shots and her serve. But when it comes to the big tournaments, Graf will keep looking to her father for support.
"He will do everything for me," she said. "He is the one who knows what is best for me and he will always be there. . . . Some people were writing very bad about my father. Maybe they wanted us to split up. That, for sure, will never happen."
After the U.S. Open match against Navratilova, Graf was quoted as saying that Martina was beatable and that Chris wasn't so tough anymore.
"My words were totally mixed up," she said. "I said, if you play a match like this, you have to feel you can beat them. What I said is that they're more beatable now. The more you play them, the more chances you have. I'm just beginning . . . and they are 30 and 32.
"I felt bad it sounded that way. I started to get some bad letters from Britain. They said, you can't beat Chris and Martina."
Graf laughed. She said she isn't in a hurry, thinking it might take two or three years to break into the top two. "I don't think anybody is going to be the next Martina or Chris," said Robert Lansdorp, the former coach of Austin and tour player Stephanie Rehe. "Everybody, that is, from three on down, doesn't believe that they can be No. 1. When Chris and Martina do retire, for whatever reason, there's going to be an unbelieveable enthusiasm with everybody else ... thinking they can be No. 1."
People now know about Graf, the top contender for the throne. She's been to 1986 what Becker was to 1985--the child prodigy, the new hope.
No doubt, 1987 will be Graf's testing ground. This year, she will have her greatest opportunity yet to break up the hierarchy in women's tennis.