Thus, even before embarking upon a trip to this obscure German village, Bruht, I was fully aware of what I would expect to encounter. Intruding upon Steffi Graf’s privacy would be slightly less difficult than returning her forehand crosscourt. That most probably, it would end up as a wild goose chase.
But then, even if you chase a wild goose, don’t you experience something? The first revealing experience came from this starting discovery: the average German doesn’t even know where Steffi Graf comes from?
We, in India, all know the answer is Bruhl; the average German also does. But what causes the conclusion is that there are two Bruhls. One is near cologne; the other is about two hundred kilometers away from Frankfurt. We are dealing with the second one. The interesting point is that both the Bruhl’s don’t figure on the German map. Yes, the place where the golden girl comes from doesn’t even figure in the German atlas. It is so relatively unknown. This sounds like Ripley’s ‘Believe it or not’. But read on her further unbelievable snippets of information.
To reach Bruhl, you have to either catch a bus or hire a car from the nearest railway station.
When I reached Bruhl, I realized that it is such a small village. I felt that in this sport of environment. My hopes of meeting Steffi were rather high. I realized two things immediately; (a) someone coming all the way from India to meet a single person from this unknown place will most certainly be treated with under warmth and affection. (b) The entire village has only one expert: Steffi Graf.
Wherever you go, you can’t avoid seeing pictures of her. The first restaurant I went into, had a huge picture of her next to the bar. I was told that Papa Graf entertained his special friends e.g. international agents, marketing people, sponsors, here.
“Peter is a lively down-to-earth guy. His only problem is booze. At times he doesn’t have control. But he is a very kind-hearted man,” the owner certifies.
“Does Steffi come here” I ask.
“How can she come now? It’s our of the question. But a couple of years ago she did isit us. That’s when this picture was taken,” he answers with a tinge of pride. Undoubtedly, there was a sense of possessiveness towards their world-famous girl-next door.
I forgot to mention it to you, but a guide was provided to me very kindly by the German information department, based at Cologne. Thankfully, he was a die-hard Steffi Graf fan you desperately require a guide in Bruhl because only the local lingo is spoken. Knowledge of English is of little use. Through my guide’s boss, we did manage the send in a request to the Mayor of Bruhl so that the latter could use his good offices to convince the elusive Ms Graf to speak me.
A doctor from England has send a nasal drop, alone with an explanation in a letter; “Every time you play the French Open, I can see you sneezing and having cough problems. I suggest this drop. Try it out, you’ll have absolutely no problems.” Of course, there are also the usual ‘I love you’ and marriage proposal letters. On an average, eighty to hundred letters reach this office every day. “How many of them are from India?” I ask. The lady stumps me with the answer: “India ? I don’t remember having seen a single letter till date.” On our way out of the office, I noticed a big marble statue of Steffi outside the Mayor’s chamber. This was erected after her Seoul Olympic gold medal win. In Bruhl, civic receptions are accorded to her almost every year as the continues to win those great Grand Slams.
After we felt the Mayor’s office, we went towards our next destination; the Graf household. To reach her place, you have to cross the Steffi Graf Park. Also the tennis center where she first went to play as a four-year-old. Peter Graf, I was told, now owns this place. Next to that is a swimming pool. It is so tiny that without asking anybody.
You know a megastar wouldn’t find it befitting her status to use it. But where is the discotheque, which she frequents with her boyfriend? There are no discotheques in Bruhl, I was told. There is not even the standard departmental store in the village. This place is primitive, even by Third world standards. Boris Beckar, her contemporary from Leimen, a neighbouring village, had long ago shifted away from his native place. Everyone said it was only too natural. I wondered then why a millionaire like Steffi continued to live here? My guide provided a clue with this answer: “That’s Steffi for you. Her on court personality is sharply in contrast to her off-the-court persona. Basically, she is a simple girl who is terribly shy.”
I remembered that was exactly what the ‘Stern’ tennis correspondent had told me: Steffi feels safe and secure in her own locality, in a familiar environment. Where her own people surround her. The lure of a big city like New York or a tax-free haven like Monte Carlo might appeal to others but Steffi was the sort who would happily sacrifice all that for home comforts.
This, of course, would be a photographer’s delight, a reporter’s version of nirvana. But tragically you are not allowed to go in. There is a notice in German, which hangs outside. My guide does the translation: “If we’re not expecting you, please do not bother us,” Plus the usual ‘beware the dogs’ alarm.
The lady who came out to answer our door bell tried to mislead us by saying Steffi was recuperating at her Heidelberg Penthouse, Unmarried, I said that I would try my luck there. Thereafter, she admitted Graf was only a few seconds away. But she wouldn’t meet anyone.
“Could I be allowed to take some pictures inside the office and silently go away without bothering the star?” I say.
“No, you require an appointment,” she firmly announced.
“How does one get an appointment?”
A phone and a Fax number are promptly handed over, but I knew it would be of little use. I told her that I had been trying those numbers for the past few days but had not got a response.
“We are in the midst of an important meeting.” is all that she offered as an excuse. The fact that I had travelled eight thousand miles to see one individual cut no ice with her. I had to remain content taking pictures of her office taken from outside. Even to do this. I required permission.
What about a photograph of Steffi’s home you might ask?
Even with the most powerful telelens is that the house is just not visible from outside.
To describe it as a fortress would be an understatement. There are no buildings opposite her estate. So you can’t even make out where exactly is the house? How does it look like? What is the colour? I couldn’t make out anything. But German tabloid reports got past this barrier. Two of them had once hired a helicopter and from there took pictures of Steffi having a bath outside her swimming pool.
It had led to a major controversy. According to reports, security had now been beefed up at the Graf household. But we can’t vouch for that. For the simple reason we were not in a helicopter and hovering above Graf’s house!
By this time, I was exasperated and disappointed. It was painful to finally come to terms with the fact that the search had proved futile. It was time for us to pack up. But how could I leave Bruhl behind without having seen the birthplace of Steffi? I wanted to see the place, which had housed one of the greatest champions in tennis history.
When I saw the house, it was as middle class as you can get anywhere. My guide corrected me. This was a lower middle class house by German standard: These houses are called Rayenhouse. These are Government subsidized flats for the lowly paid, Peter Graf a second hand car salesman and a club level tennis player, couldn’t afford anything more luxurious. The house is now occupied by someone else who didn’t want his privacy to be intruded upon.
All I could learn about the flat was this; there are only three small, rickety rooms inside. Obviously one of the rooms was used for her initial practice lessons. Her father tied a string from one part of the room to another, to make a net. The four-years old child kept on hitting the ball above that. Every ball that was hit above the net latched her an ice cream as promised by the father. The consistency with which the child kept on hitting the ball above the string left the father with no option but to raise the being of the string. But she continued to hit the ball above the string.
Now standing outside this house, I had a peculiar feeling. I felt that at any moment a four-year-old would come outside the house saying, “Papa, let’s go in for practice. I mustn’t miss it.”
“From where to where,” my guide kept on muttering on our way back. Having seen where she came from and where she now lived, he was reminded of the Virginia Slims advertisement: “You’ve come a long way baby.”
I was thinking of something else. It wasn’t a wild goose chase. It taught me the importance of that age-old saying.
“Champions are born, never made!”