Playing in Pain

updated 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

ON THE TENNIS COURT, STEFFI GRAF, the top-ranked women's player in the game for most of the past nine years, has been nearly unbeatable. Her vulnerability lay elsewhere—specifically, in a criminal court in Mannheim, Germany, where last week her father, Peter Graf, 58, was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison for evading $7.4 million in taxes on her earnings. "He was stub-born and ambitious, and his ambitions misled him," said lead judge Joachim Plass of Graf, the former car salesman who had managed the career of his superstar daughter, now 27, until he ran afoul of the law.

During the five-month trial—which created a nearly O.J. level of hysteria in Germany—an unflattering picture had emerged of the already scandal-tainted Peter, whom the tabloid press has dubbed Papa Merciless for his ironhanded control over Steffi's career. Yet Steffi herself seems to have emerged unscathed. "I think most people are satisfied she had nothing to do with all this," says Hans Leyendecker, a writer at the newsweekly Der Spiegel and a coauthor of the recent biography Reiche Steffi, Armes Kind (Rich Steffi, Poor Child). "She's the most popular woman in the country," he explains. "People made a distinction. He was the bad guy—she was clean."

Still, her father's ordeal put Steffi under almost unendurable pressure from the beginning, and his conviction cracked her stoic facade. Cornered recently at the Melbourne airport after losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open, Graf uncharacteristically snapped at reporters when asked about her father, saying, "Haven't you guys got enough?" Clearly she had—and her sensitivity was understandable. "The father was a god for Steffi," Boris Breskvar, her childhood tennis coach, told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last fall. "And Steffi was for him also everything."

In fact she was only 4 when Peter began hitting balls at her in the family's living room in Mannheim. Later, Peter picked her coaches, made her schedule and, when she turned pro at 13, took charge of the money—her personal worth is now said to be over $60 million—so she could concentrate on tennis. For her part, Steffi stuck by Peter in 1990, when news broke about his affair with a 20-year-old nude model. (Peter's marriage to Steffi's mother, Heidi, survived; the two maintain a residence in Brühl, Germany. Steffi's younger brother Michael has been following her on tour to film a documentary.) Steffi also visited Peter faithfully during the 15 months he spent in prison before he was granted $3.3 million bail in November. At one point her spirits were so low, she told SI, "I was thinking of quitting everything. Leaving Germany, tennis. Everything."

But Graf did not leave tennis. Nor, says her manager Hans Engert, will she leave Germany, where her boyfriend, race-car driver Michael Bartels, lives. On the other hand she will not quickly leave her current troubles behind, since prosecutors plan to investigate whether she played any role in the tax fraud. How will she manage without Peter, who is now out on bail pending an appeal? Says Leyendecker: "She'll have to learn to lead a normal life."

And normal, for Steffi, means winning. In the few hours it took to fly from Melbourne to Japan, Steffi already had her game face back in place. Met by reporters at the airport, she politely but firmly declined to discuss her father—then declared her intention to make the finals at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. "I'm ready to play," she announced.

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