As a Blackmail Scandal Engulfs Her Father, Steffi Graf's Life and Tennis Game Come Unstrung

updated 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Until two months ago, 21-year-old Steffi Graf seemed invincible—and likely to stay that way for years to come. Since turning pro at the age of 13, she had won 48 singles titles, amassed more than $5.6 million in prize money, and become the first women's Grand Slam winner since Margaret Court in 1970. Her rocketlike but laser-precise forehand had made her indisputably the world's top woman player, and there was talk that on her broad Teutonic shoulders should rest the title Best Woman Player Ever.

So it was perplexing indeed when the tawny terror from Brühl, West Germany—riding a 66-match winning streak—crumbled suddenly in the final of the German Open against a hard-hitting 16-year-old named Monica Seles. Equally uncharacteristic, Graf lost her cool in the locker room after the match, smashing a hole in the wall with her racket. Surprising defeats at the French Open (again to Seles) and at Wimbledon only heightened speculation about her collapse. "Look, it's a simple loss," Graf snapped at reporters after being ousted by Zina Garrison, ranked No. 5 in the world, in the Wimbledon semifinals. "Is it a tragedy?"

Perhaps not, but it did contain one tragic element: The force that had raised Steffi Graf to the heights—her domineering father. Peter—now threatened to bring her low. In late May, during the German Open, a popular West German tabloid, Bild, broke the story that a curvaceous 22-year-old former Playboy Playmate named Nicole Meissner had given birth to a daughter in January and named Peter Graf as the father. Meissner had filed a paternity suit, and Graf had reportedly paid her and a boxing promoter with alleged underworld connections named Eberhard Thust $424,000 to withdraw it.

Peter Graf did not go to the police with his troubles. But on June 19, just as Graf arrived in London for Wimbledon, Meissner and Thust were arrested in West Germany on charges of extortion. (The police accidentally found out about the suspected blackmail while investigating a bribery scandal.) They remain in jail in Frankfurt. So far, Peter Graf has declined to testify against them or speak to the press. Meanwhile, German tabloids have been furiously stirring the pot. They say the elder Graf took Meissner, whom he passed off as a friend of the family, on tour with him and Steffi. "Once, I was permitted to sit in a box with him and his wife," Meissner told Quick. On several occasions, she claimed, she and Peter even went disco-hopping with Steffi.

No one in tennis seems surprised that these distractions have interfered with Grafs game. "A power player like Steffi depends entirely on her confidence level," says TV commentator Mary Carillo, herself a former touring professional. "When you're facing challenges on the court, the last thing you need is trouble off the court. I feel for her. She's paying for the sins of her father."

Indeed, Graf spoke for the first time last week about the devastating professional and personal toll the scandal has taken on her and her family. She told Stern magazine that when she first read reports about her father's liaison with Meissner, "I cried. I asked my driver to take me to the forest. There, I ran alone through the woods, sat down somewhere and thought: 'Steffi, you have to rise above this.' Yet after I returned to my hotel, I still was so deeply hurt that I asked myself: 'How can I go on with this tournament?' "

In fact, Steffi is Peter Grafs creation in more than the familial sense. It was he who recognized her athletic talents early on and spent endless hours batting a ball with his daughter. When she was 7, he quit his job as a car and insurance salesman to devote himself more fully to her career. Acting as what Carillo calls Steffi's "designated bastard," Peter Graf zealously protected her from physical and mental burnout by limiting both her playing time and the time she spent with reporters. By all accounts, she adored him. And at least for now, she seems to have forgiven him for his alleged transgressions, preferring to blame the tabloids for their zeal in exploiting the scandal. Graf told Stern she would consider leaving Germany for the U.S. "if the newspapers continue to hurt me and my family with their headlines."

Although the Grafs have been wounded, the family has shown a certain resilience. Peter and Steffi's mother, Heidi, his wife of 22 years, were last seen holding hands at Wimbledon. "The Grafs are a strong family," says Steffi's agent, Phil de Picciotto. "I think this experience will bind them closer.", Certainly it will teach the shaken Steffi an important lesson in the game of survival. "I have to fight not only in my sport," she has said, "but also in my life."

—Susan Reed, Franz Spelman in Munich

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