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Those Footsteps Martina Is Hearing Belong to Germany's Steffi Graf, No. 3 in Women's Tennis, and Rising

updated 06/09/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 01:00AM

All around the stadium spring was bursting forth in the leafy Grünewald quarter of West Berlin. But as 29-year-old Martina Navratilova walked onto center court at the Rot-Weiss Tennis Club for the finals of the West German Open two weeks ago, she may have felt an ominous chill. Across the net stood tennis' most recent German wunderkind, a 16-year-old, steel-nerved gazelle named Steffi Graf. For the next 65 minutes the towheaded youngster unleashed lunging volleys and sledgehammer forehands, demolishing her idol with stunning rapidity, 6-2, 6-3. Later Steffi, who said her only hope had been not "to lose too quickly," coolly played cards in the players' lounge as Navratilova, who had never lost more than five games to the teenager in each of their three previous matches, dejectedly admitted, "It was an execution."

Not since the rise of Hana Mandlikova and the virtual disappearance of Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger has such a formidable challenger to Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd exploded from the pack of also-rans in women's tennis. This week, as the grueling French Open reaches its climax on the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium, all eyes could be on Steffi, who is seeking her first major championship. "I don't think about the finals, only the next match," she says warily. But, says Evert Lloyd, "She's capable of winning the French. She is determined, tough to beat and has the right mental attitude. I've said all along that Steffi definitely has the game to contend for No. 1."

There is no longer any doubt about that. Steffi's win over Navratilova was one in a string of convincing victories. Earlier she had defeated No. 4, Mandlikova, and No. 2, Evert Lloyd, while winning her first pro tournament at Hilton Head Island, S.C. in April. Two weeks later she made sure no one missed the point by beating her teenage rival, media darling Gabriela Sabatini, in Indianapolis. Says West German tennis official Jens-Peter Hecht: "The difference between Steffi and some Americans is that all they can do is hit from the baseline one thousand times. Steffi's more versatile. She has different strokes. Her character is different from Austin's or Jaeger's. Jaeger was pushed too much, or pushed herself. Steffi's already far ahead of them, not just in playing, but in her mind."

Yet if Steffi hasn't been pushed, she has been protected and prodded. Though she is scrupulously courteous on court—even questioning linesmen's calls in her own favor—her father and coach, Peter Graf, 46, is widely accused of brusqueness and arrogance. A prosperous businessman, he quit selling cars and insurance when Steffi was 7 and moved his family from Mannheim to the small town of Brühl, near Cologne. There he built a small tennis club to nurture his daughter's talent. Some complain that Peter has handled her success less well than Steffi. He has been reprimanded for coaching from the sidelines (he denies it), monitors his daughter's interviews like a suspicious Doberman and doesn't hesitate to interrupt and correct her. Still, father and daughter seem devoted to one another. "It has never been difficult to coach her," says Peter. "We have a very good relationship. She's very disciplined. I never have to tell her to work." For her part, Steffi insists, "It's very good to have my father as my coach. He knows me best."

Peter and Heidi Graf realized early on that they were rearing a strong-willed prodigy. It was at Steffi's insistence that Peter gave her her first racquet, with a sawed-off handle, when she was only 4. At first her game consisted of hitting a ball over a row of chairs in the living room. Then a string was attached between chairs. Within a year she was beating 8-year-olds. She won her first junior tournament, in Munich, at 6, and at 11 won both the West German 14-and 18-and-under titles. In 1982 Steffi quit school, turned pro and became the second youngest player ever to receive an international ranking—No. 214. Over the next three years she climbed to No. 6, won a gold medal at the L.A. Olympics and reduced No. 4 seed Pam Shriver to tears when she beat her in three tie-breaker sets at last summer's U.S. Open.

So far Peter Graf's biggest challenge has been to keep his daughter from burning herself out. He enters her in a maximum of 13 to 16 tournaments a year, leaving Steffi time at home to study with a tutor and to enjoy typical teenage pursuits such as collecting shorts and miniature bottles, and playing with her beloved dogs, Ben and Max. But tennis is Steffi's passion. "I get enormous pleasure out of playing," she says. "Even if I am young, I don't see why I should be deprived of that."

She is not likely to be deprived very much longer. "I have a lot of things to improve," she says. "I would like my game to be a mixture of the styles of Navratilova and Evert. Attack as well as Martina and defend as well as Chris. That is my dream." It is a bold ambition, certainly, to combine the separate strengths of the two finest players of their era, but only Steffi would call it a dream. To her opponents it sounds more like a nightmare and, even worse, only too real.

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