by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — You would think, with her growing mountain of trophies, her blood-chilling forehand, her nuclear serve, the way she disposes of opponents so quickly she sometimes has to apologize to the crowd — you would think with all that Steffi Graf might give us something about her to . .
. dislike. A little ego, perhaps? A little scandal? Maybe she bet on tennis matches?

No. Instead, we are stuck with the greatest force in women’s tennis masquerading as your everyday, happy-go-lucky West German fraulein, Walkman on her ears, dogs at her side, a new boyfriend who had to be approved by her father. The Bionic Woman meets Patty Duke.

Makes you want to take up golf.

“I am playing normal right now,” said a smiling, 20-year-old Graf Tuesday, after whipping young Arantxa Sanchez Vicario — the only woman to beat her in a Grand Slam tournament in the last year and a half — 7-5, 6-1, to advance to the Wimbledon semifinals. Normal? Did she say normal? Sure. If your home address is Krypton. How good is Graf right now? How many people will see
“Batman”? How much trouble is Pete Rose in?

That’s how good she is. No woman hits the ball harder. No woman covers the court as quickly. The plain truth is, they might as well wrap up Wimbledon and mail it to her little house in Bruhl, West Germany — right now if they like — because unless she decides to catch a cold, loses interest, or falls down the steps and has to play one-handed (and I suppose she could beat most of the world that way, anyhow), this tournament and most of the others are hers.

That is incredible, really, at her age, and we will get to that in a moment. Yet devastating tennis is not the only incredible thing about Graf. We have watched her grow up here, on these grass courts, from a scrawny challenger to a powerful, golden-locked champion, and now, with the imminent retirement of Chris Evert — and soon to follow Martina Navratilova — she deserves the spotlight all to herself. Yet what stands out, on the lip of Graf’s monarchy, is that she still does not choose to . . . stand out.

Success like Graf’s could go to anyone’s head, young or old. Yet despite a homeland that seems to tremble whenever her plane touches down, despite endorsements and prize money that made her a millionaire before her 18th birthday, despite an overbearing father who has puppeteered her career, and despite the unwanted side-effects of fame (a deranged male fan slit his wrists in front of her house after she told him she had a boyfriend — the fan

survived), somehow Graf remains steady, on course, a relatively normal youth.

If her tennis crown said “Sony” on it, she’d plug in headphones and be perfectly happy.

Now, don’t misunderstand. Graf is hardly a typical young woman. She can never be, not after they named a square after her in her hometown, not after she received personal audiences with everyone from Michael Jackson to Max Schmeling, not when that first boyfriend, tennis player Alexander Mronz, caused such a tremor in West Germany that a newspaper headline read “STEFFI: VERBLOUNG NOCH DIESES JAHR? (“Steffi: Will an Engagement Come Within The Year?”)

Her innocence has been scratched away. So has her shyness, and during interviews, it is true, she has even developed an occasional sarcastic edge. The other day, after Graf beat young Monica Seles here in the fourth round, a reporter wondered how much difference it made having her father, Peter (who had been ill), back in the stands. “Oh, all the difference in the world. He wasn’t at the French and I beat Seles in three sets and here I beat her in two.”

She stared at the man, who was busy scribbling it all down.

“I’m joking!” she gushed, then buried her head in disbelief.

But OK, such sarcasm may be as much maturity as it is impatience. The fact remains that Graf, for all her stardom, still likes pinball, still squeals over the rock group Simply Red, and still lives, part of the year, in her hometown of Bruhl, which, by most accounts, is the kind of town people dream about leaving if only they could. She rides her bike, buys the newspaper, goes to bed early. “It is home,” she will say if you ask her, and, unlike fellow countryman Boris Becker, who long ago fled West Germany for the tax-free allure of Monte Carlo, Graf and her family insist they are staying put.

Give her credit for that, and for never insulting opponents, for never sulking like a spoiled child (Andre Agassi and Gaby Sabatini, take heed). For all her money, give Graf credit for choosing endorsement deals that more reflect her middle-class upbringing, Opel cars and fruit juices versus BMW and Perrier water. Give her credit for saying things like “I hope to live a long life, but with my whole family, please.”

Then watch her play tennis.

And give her credit for everything else.

Did you catch her Tuesday against Sanchez Vicario? Here was a teenager who had tripped Graf in the French Open final last month — ruining her string of five straight Grand Slam titles — and whom the Wimbledon crowd had clearly adopted as its upstart favorite of the day. It might rattle another 20-year- old that the crowd had suddenly turned against her.

Not Graf. After falling behind in the first set, 5-4, she came back smoking, her forehands blazing down the line, her backhands floating like some James Bond missile, impossible to return. She ended that first set with a slam that sent the ball as high as the stadium roof; she then proceeded to capture six of the next seven games. Sanchez Vicario, from Spain, had been fond of uttering “Vamos!” (Let’s go!) to charge herself up during the match. Steffi had her own word: vamoose.

“She was incredible; I could do nothing,” admitted Sanchez Vicario afterward. That is the way it is against Graf. Once she gets on a roll, she is like a tank coming downhill. It is no accident that she won her first pro tournament only three years ago and has won 35 since. Momentum? This is a career that can be charted by explosions:
* Boom. She beat Navratilova and Evert in back-to-back matches to win the Lipton tournament in 1987 — when she was 17.
* Boom. She unnerved Navratilova into a match-ending double fault to win the 1987 French Open, her first Grand Slam title.
* Boom. She won the French one year later, then apologized for doing it in just 32 minutes, 6-0, 6-0, over Natalia Zvereva.
* Boom. She took her first Wimbledon last summer with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 demolition of Navratilova.
* Boom. She won the Olympic gold medal in Seoul last September to go with the French, Australian, U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles: They call that the Grand Slam plus one. They call that incredible.

Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

And what makes this all the more impressive? She has not yet peaked. Not according to her — “I think I can still work on my serve,” she says — and not according to her coaches, including No. 1 mentor Pavel Slozil. “A few more years,” they say. “When she is 22 or 23.” By then they may be counting corpses. Even Sabatini, once considered her rival, seems to have fallen a full step behind.

Name the surface, Graf can dominate. Name the country, she can win. This is a prodigy who began earlier than even the most tennis-crazed toddlers — batting balls off the walls when she was 4 years old. Her parents, both accomplished players themselves, hung string between two chairs and encouraged Steffi to keep the ball alive for 25 hits, then 50, then 10 minutes, then 20. They rewarded good shots with lollipops. Today she has the moonbeams, too.

True, much has been made of her father’s control. Peter Graf, an intense, firm-jawed man, quit his job in the auto business to concentrate on Steffi’s tennis when she was just a kid. Considered everything from domineering and obsessive to paranoid and misunderstood, he has taken on the tennis world with a jewel in his hands and has held it at bay, because Graf right now is the women’s game; she is the standard. “He runs her life,” the critics wail. “He picks her deals, picks her schedule, picks her social life. Why do you think she still goes to bed at 9 o’clock?”

Well, maybe. Then again, Steffi has her own explanations. “Tennis is not my whole life. I have other interests, I love music and museums and reading. I am very happy with my existence and nobody is making decisions for me. This is what I want to do. I love my family and want to be with them. Is that wrong?”

Who can say no? And the fact is, while Graf emerged on the scene as a minor, the tennis tour will age you quickly. So she is old enough now to speak for herself, act for herself. And until proven otherwise, she seems to be doing a pretty good job of it. Is the worst sin to be a little too much of a daddy’s girl, a little too square, a little too sheltered?

If she is all that, remember, too, that she is also the best in the business, No. 1 with a bullet. In the next few days, she may prove that in the most unpleasant of fashions, by shooting down Evert and Navratilova, the reigning legends of her sport, and, in all effect, bidding them a Wimbledon adieu.

So be it. She has more than earned the throne. It might be more in vogue if Graf could cook up some controversy, eat bugs, pitch pennies with the ballgirls, hang out with Wade Boggs. Anything.

We’ll have to leave that to others. Win or lose this tournament, Graf is it. To reconstruct a famous phrase, we have seen the future of women’s tennis and it is thin, blond, and hits the ball like thunder. Pop in another cassette. The beat goes boom, boom, boom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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