The plain looking, ordinarily dressed man was too tried to continue the conversation from where he had left off last night. He pleased, “give me some time, I am totally exhausted”. He walked in to the Competitor’s Bar, slumped into a corner with an ‘ALL-IS-LOST’ look in the face which suggested that soon this man would start drinking his way out of his misery.
A few tables away, sat another man. Short, well built with long hair. He was singing, talking, all the time. Enjoying his drink thoroughly. It looked as if he was celebrating something big. In fact it was the opposite. The man who looked happy had indeed actually lost. He was none other than Karlos Kirmayr, the well-known coach, philosopher and guide of Gabriela Sabatini. That Karlos who merely putting up a brave exterior was evident soon. He told Sportsworld, “Sorry, I can’t do the interview today may be next time. May be some other day.”
Meanwhile the I’m exhausted Peter Graf finished his drink. He protected to give a few answers and yet it was crystal clear that he still wasn’t back to his normal self. The interview with Steffi Graf’s father was done in two parts. A 85 per cent a day before the ladies final BJ rest, after the match. The much maligned, controversial Peter Graf was a pleasant surprise. He behaved so politely that it baffled the interviewer. Over the years the German journalists have portrayed him as a self seeking, arrogant individual. And here was this man: soft spoken, friendly, courteous. Which one is the real Peter Graf?
Sportsworld: Now that your daughter has been able to regain the Wimbledon Singles crown, what are your feelings?
Peter Graf: Well, I don’t know what to say. I’m too tried, just exhausted. After sitting through a match like this..
You really had a heart attack?
No, not that. But (laughs) Steffe played badly today. She allowed Sabatini to come back and dominate the second set. I thought, had Sabatini played a little better she could have won the match.
How much does this victory mean to you and your family?
Considering all that you have been through the last year? I am sorry. At this moment I don’t know how to express myself. We are happy, very happy. I can’t say anything more. I’m tried. I must go to the bar now.
Over the years how has success changed the Graf family?
I don’t think we’ve changed. On this topic I want to say a lot of things. Unfortunately, I can’t express myself well in English. I wish you knew German. All I can tell you, we’ve realized that it’s not worth being a success in Germany. From my personal experience, they don’t their champions well.
From what we’ve heard/read, you didn’t being to a rich family. On the contrary you have an ordinary, middle class background. Despite that how did you produce this great champion of yours?
Over the years I’ve realized one thing. You can’t make a champion. You can only help a champion towards achieving the goal. But finally the champion takes over and looks after himself.
Even then we are curious to know the details of the Steffi Graf story..
It’s a very long story. Steffi started playing tennis when she was just three years and eight months old. Within a year or two she had developed so much interest that she went on and on. She was so tiny then, and used to practice downstairs in the hobby room. I was working very hard at that time. I had an insurance company but to get myself settled had to work continuously for long hours. You know my day used to start at 7 am and I used to finish around I am. In the midst of all this I had this demanding daughter who would come everyday and say “Pa, why don’t you play with me? Please Pa, please. Though I always had an active interest in tennis…I myself was a club level player but because of a taxing schedule I could spare little time for Steffi. Most of the time she practiced alone.”
Did you imagine at that stage that she would be a champion?
That she was talented I realized pretty early when Steffi was about six or seven years. But no one had expected her to become the number one player in the world. Will u believe me, seven-year-old Steffi used to hit 350 balls over the net at a stretch. Without a single ball going out side. To encourage her further; I used to give her daily prizes. You know, the condition she had to full fill to get a bowl of ice cream was to hit 50 balls over the net without one ball hitting the net for going outside. Steffi was so consistent that there were days when I had to buy seven, eight ice creams for her. I became little worried because so much ice cream wasn’t good for her health anyway. Subsequently what I started doing was (laughs). I started giving her very difficult balls from the other end of the court. Which made it impossible for her to return so many balls at one go?
Did you get her admitted in any of the tennis schools?
No, initially it was very hard for me. I owned a tennis ball (court) when she was about ten. But before that it was so difficult. Fortunately, I was the number one player in a local club. So they allowed me to play with my daughter daily for an hour without having to pay for it. In winter, I used to drive down to the club with Steffi. From my place it was about half an hour’s drive. We used to practice from 7 to 8 in the morning. In summer it was easier. During that time you can go anywhere in Germany. In the sense that it’s less expensive to play. You know, whatever I earn I spend on her. She was so eager to play. Always. She grasped everything so easily. Whatever is her current form, whoever, is beating her today. What the computer says is not important. I am convinced that she is the best player in the world.
Many people are talking about Steffi’s overdependence on her forehand. They are saying, to regain the number one position she has to learn the top spin backhand.
I have heard this, but I don’t subscribe to the theory. I think, one should stick to his or her natural game, irrespective of what people say.
You must be a happy and satisfied man. You were pursuing a dream which has become true. Your daughter is not just a tennis champion but widely known all over the world.
I wish I could say that (I’m very happy). On the contrary I sit back and think whether all this success was worth the problems it has bought? At times I felt, we should had remained as ordinary people, as we were. You know, success extracts such a big price. (Here his voice changes, getting choked with emotion). It’s too touching, too demanding. The life of a champion is so difficult in Germany. Please excuse my English. I shall try to tell you our problems. You know if you’re a champion in US, they would really respect you. If they meet their champion on the street they say ‘hello,’ very warmly. They feel very proud. They say, ‘that’s our champion’. Our champion. So much respect and pride. Whereas in Germany, they tend to think that a champion is their personal property with whom they can do whatever they feel like. Ninety nine percent of them know you and some of them are so overenthusiastic that you are afraid to go out of the house. Let me tell you in Germany. Steffi doesn’t have a private life. She just can’t come out of the house. We have no private life whatsoever and that’s the greatest problem.
Yes, they had warned me in advanced.
They are right. I am not easily available to them. For them indeed I am a difficult person. Why should I speak to them? They are so jealous, so vindictive. The moment a star is born in their country they start writing about all sports of things. Money love, sex…they would go on and on. They have just two stars , Borts and Steffi. So they write all kinds of things against them. Last year it got to such a stage that I decided enough was enough. I won’t allow them any more to encroach on my private life. I stopped giving interviews. So did Steffi. It made life difficult for them as Steffi became totally inaccessible to them. As it is, I’ve got so many problems. Her sponsors, her tennis. I work from morning till night. I remain so busy these days. In most of the tournaments I can’t accompany my daughter. Come to think of it, here in Wimbledon I have come on Monday, after a week. Already half of the tournament is over.
But Mr. Graf, despite your suffering, isn’t there another side of the story? In the sense that your family is known all over the world. Your daughter is loved everywhere. She is a household name even in a place like India where more than ninety percent of the population hasn’t lifted a tennis racket?
Yes. India (laughs) is a place we remember. You know everyday Steffi received about 10 to 15 letters from India. Very nice, warm letters.
I presume, if we had a champion like Steffi in India, people would’ve really felt proud of her.
Exactly. That’s my point. Why should you subject your champion to so much grief? At times I think the German press misunderstood us. And they did so intentionally. Especially the yellow press. I can’t understand why they don’t feel proud of Borts and Steffi. You will always find them fingering these two. Basically most of the write ups centers around two things, love and sex. Now, tell me, why should Steffi waster her time on all these? My daughter wants to play tennis, only tennis. She wants to be the perfect tennis player. If you can’t help her, why are you standing in the way? What has she done? She or Borts, that you never write for them but always against. I am telling you again. It’s not easy to be a champion in Germany.
There were reports in the Press that coach Slozil’s job was on the line had Steffi lost the Wimbledon final. Were you thinking in terms of a new coach?
This is news to me. I never thought of changing Pavel. We’re quite happy with him. You know, people are talking about backhand topspin etc but you don’t go out and play this shot blindly. You play this when your opponent comes to the net. Otherwise you play your normal game. You just slice your returns.
The slice may be effective on grass as the ball keeps low. But don’t you think on any other surface it’s just a defensive shot?
No, I think tennis is always better to follow the instruction of your heart and mind. You don’t change your style just because some people are advocating. I have got full confidence in Steffi. She knows exactly what she has to do and how.
Reports have suggested that Steffi is moving to Monaco. She has bought an apartment there and will stay on her own..
No, that’s not true. She’ll stay in German, Absolutely.
But Steffi herself had said last year that she was thinking to move out to the US?
Yes, she had said that. Again thanks to the Press. Believe me, we don’t want to create a sense. If we want to shift to the US we can do it anybody. But still we want to stay in Germany. That’s our motherland. We’ve got out base there… we pay our taxes there..everything.
Does Steffi want to continue as long as Martina is doing or will she get married within a few years and leave the game? What are the plans?
Marriage (laughs). Well, I am afraid I can’t answer this question. Only Steffi can answer this. She is a champion and she takes her won decision. Just because I am her father I can’t go and tell Steffi that please don’t continue beyond this point. No, I won’t do that. It is entirely upto Steffi. She’ll play as long as she wants. At this moment she is a young woman who likes to have some life outside tennis. In her spare time she has started playing the piano. She is learning Spanish and will start learning some other languages.
Notwithstanding her tremendous potential, Steffi must have also been helped by a very supportive family structure? You as well as your wife, both have a playing background.
Yes. Steffi’s mother was also a decent player. I won’t deny that our playing experience has helped. Steffi knows exactly what we’ve done for her and our daughter is just giving it all back to us (smiles broadly).