WUNDERKINDS WEST GERMANS BECKER, GRAF INVADING TENNIS` TOP RANKS
Tuesday, February 11, 1986
Time: February, 1985.
Place: Laver`s International Resort, Delray Beach.
In a hotel room, two foreign teen-agers, a boy and a girl, are playing backgammon to pass the time. Tomorrow, they will be playing tennis as the inaugural Lipton International Players Championships begin.
The boy will meet Joey Rive, a local qualifier from West Palm Beach. The girl will oppose Sylvia Hanika, the 16th seed.
They will walk unnoticed through the crowds to their designated courts, just two West Germans out of 256 players in the tournament. Few tennis fans know Steffi Graf; fewer have heard of Boris Becker.
Time: February, 1986.
Place: Boca West.
Boris Becker, 18, and Steffi Graf, 16, are no longer two faceless kids from West Germany playing in the LIPC. They cannot stroll through the crowds this year, pause for an ice cream, linger and watch a match on the outside courts.
Boris and Steffi, in 12 months, have become stars. They belong to tennis` elite now, known by their first names alone like Chris and Jimmy, Ivan and Martina.
Boris, of course, is the Wimbledon champion, the youngest in history. In the last remarkable year, he has vaulted from No. 65 to No. 5 in the world. He is seeded third behind Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander at the LIPC.
Steffi is no meteor. She has no major championships, no tournament titles amid the Martina-Chris Dynasty, but she has climbed steadily from No. 22 last year to No. 4. She is seeded second behind Chris Evert Lloyd at the LIPC.
Becker and Graf didn`t get this good by eating lots of sauerkraut. The West Germans are both prodigies. Becker reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open weeks after his 16th birthday. Graf, at age 13, was the youngest player ever to be ranked on the Women`s Tennis Association computer, and she won an Olympic gold medal in 1984.
Both were headed for the Top 10. As it turned out, much quicker than anyone could have expected.
"A year ago I was nobody," Becker said. "Winning Wimbledon was like falling into cold water."
"I never thought about getting this far so fast," said Graf, who made her biggest strides with semifinal showings at the LIPC and the U.S. Open last year. "It was an unbelievable year for me."
Graf, at least, can breathe without drawing a crowd. Winning Wimbledon has changed Becker`s life forever.
"I`ve become pretty famous," Becker said. "I thought all the Wimbledon attention would last maybe three or four weeks. I didn`t know Wimbledon was that big. It`s difficult to live, compared to what I lived before. But it`s the price I have to pay."
The strawberry-haired tennis player with the country boy smile has become incorporated. Becker, Inc., handles the burgeoning empire. It is estimated that Becker grossed $3 million from tennis and endorsements in 1985.
Obtaining a personal interview with Becker is harder than getting an audience with the Pope, which Boris was able to do last year (the tennis star offered to give the Holy Father lessons).
In contrast, Graf is accessible. She was a frequent visitor to the Virginia Slims of Florida press tent in Key Biscayne before and after matches, eating dinner at a table filled with writers filing their daily stories.
Graf can relax a little in America. In Europe, she is nearly as popular as Becker.
"If I go swimming back home, everyone comes into the pool after me," Graf said.
Becker cannot relax anywhere.
"I bought me a nice little hat and glasses, and if I don`t want to be recognized, I wear them," Becker said.
Becker and Graf both come from tennis families. But while Karl-Heinz Becker has put his son`s career in the experienced hands of Ion Tiriac and Guenther Bosch, Peter Graf commands his daughter`s life.
Peter Graf has been compared to Roland Jaeger, the dominating father of Andrea Jaeger, who burst on the scene at a tender age and burned out with injuries and ennui at 19.
But that may be an unfair comparison. Peter Graf, unlike ex-boxer Roland Jaeger, is a former tennis player (Top 30 in West Germany) whose career was ended prematurely by injuries. He retired to run a tennis center in Bruehl.
"The difference between Roland and Peter is that Roland was a typical tennis parent who pushed his daughter because he wanted her to succeed. Peter and Steffi share the same goal," said one tennis insider.
"When I came home from work, Steffi would be there with her racket," her father remembers. "She was only four but she would plead with me `Papa, papa, play with me.` I was tired but I would play with her for five minutes. It was unbelievable how good she was. Her eye-hand coordination. I knew she was special."
Peter Graf says he has put no pressure on his daughter.
"Steffi is a normal girl but tennis is the most important thing to her," Graf said. "She`s never had pressure. This is what she wants to do."
The Steffi Graf story is the Chris Evert fable in German: Father knows best.
Boris Becker, meanwhile, has taken the high road to glory. His teacher is Tiriac, one of the game`s most powerful and imposing figures.
A 46-year-old Rumanian who played 17 years on the tour and has guided the careers of Ilie Nastase, Adriano Panatta, Henri Leconte, and, most notably, Guillermo Vilas, Tiriac learned about Becker from his boyhood friend Bosch, who was the coach of the West German Tennis Federation.
Bosch told Tiriac: I`ve got a kid for you. Tiriac watched Becker play in Monte Carlo and had Vilas hit with the teen-ager. Vilas said: We`ve got to sign this kid.
Tiriac made a deal with the Beckers, guaranteeing the family an unspecified amount (reported to be $250,000) to oversee Boris` career. Tiriac persuaded the Beckers that their son would not reach his potential if he stayed in West Germany.
"It was obvious to me that if he stayed in that program, with all due respect to the German federation, he would finish in another two years as just another German player," Tiriac wrote in World Tennis.
Tiriac runs the business of Boris Becker, but he wisely has let Bosch handle the coaching. That`s not to say there isn`t some overlapping of duties. Tiriac sits in the stands with Bosch during Becker`s matches and gets warned for illegal coaching.
"I think Becker views Tiriac as a difficult man," said Wojtek Fibak, Ivan Lendl`s early mentor. "He obeys Tiriac but he wants the paternal figure of Bosch around. He can complain to Bosch, scream at him, ignore him and at the same time be open with him, get his understanding and approval as he could never get them from Tiriac. Tiriac realizes this and doesn`t intrude. He doesn`t even try to dominate this relationship as he did with Vilas, and that`s a smart decision."
"It is like I have three fathers," Becker said. "My own, my coach and my manager."
West Germany has produced more good women players than men in recent years. Bettina Bunge, Sylvia Hanika and Claudia Kohde-Kilsch all reached the top 10 before Graf came along.
But it wasn`t until Becker boomed that tennis hit big in West Germany. Women`s sports make a minor impact in Europe.
"Becker`s rise heightened the popularity of tennis in West Germany and increased the awareness of women`s tennis," said Phil dePicciotto of Advantage International, the firm that represents Graf.
Becker was good for Graf in another way.
"Back home, Boris has taken the pressure off Steffi," dePicciotto said. "Boris is so much in demand that he`s diverted attention from Steffi. He`s the sport in West Germany."
"Because of Becker, Steffi had quiet to practice," said Peter Graf.
But when Becker was ousted from the U.S. Open by Joakim Nystrom, the huge West German press contingent quickly shifted its attention to Graf, who responded by upsetting Pam Shriver and gaining the semifinals.
Graf became the national heroine. She had to take the phone off the hook when she got home. Things got so bad that Graf arrived in Fort Lauderdale last September, a week early for the Lynda Carter/Maybelline Classic, "to get away from the German press."
Judged by their rankings, Graf (4) is higher among her peers than Becker (5). Becker`s sole claim to fame is Wimbledon. He has not won any other Grand Slam titles.
Many people forget that Becker won Wimbledon without having to face McEnroe, Connors or Lendl.
"Under the right circumstances, Steffi could win a major too," dePicciotto said. "But she`s always had to play Chris or Martina. At Wimbledon, the draw was in Becker`s favor. The roles could easily have been reversed. Winning a major is such an opportunity."
Peter Graf knows the titles will come. Slowly but surely is his motto.
"I`ve learned from the Americans that it is better to go step-by-step than -- wheet," said Graf, alluding to the brief glories of Austin and Jaeger. "The most important thing is that Steffi has the right style. She is working on her game and getting better. She is very disciplined but she needs two more years. It`s possible that she can beat Hana Mandlikova (ranked No. 3) this year. But she can`t beat Chris or Martina yet."
"Steffi is better than everybody accept Chris or Martina," said Becker, who is proud of his countrygirl. "But they will have to stop playing before she can be No. 1."
Becker is better than anyone except Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe these days. He has beaten Mats Wilander, ranked ahead of him, convincingly in recent matches. With McEnroe off on hiatus for two months, the game belongs to Lendl and Becker.
"Boris has time," Lendl said. "He`s only 18. He can wait a little bit. I had to wait until I was 25 before I became No. 1."
Tiriac says that Becker needs a few more years to improve his footwork and his volley.
Tiriac says that the unexpected triumph at Wimbledon has not altered the basic Becker program.
"Those two weeks are gone," Tiriac said in Penthouse (yes, every magazine wants Becker). "We just have to go on. All of the victories, all of the money, they are just numbers. They don`t mean anything."
Place: The Wimbledon ball.
The men`s champion is dancing with the women`s champion, as is the tradition. He turns to her, smiles and says "danke schoen."