Peter Graf, Volatile Father of Tennis Great, Dies at 75
Published: December 3, 2013
Peter Graf, who as the coach and manager of the tennis great Steffi Graf acquired the nickname Papa Merciless for his stern control of almost every aspect of her life, died on Saturday in Mannheim, Germany. He was 75.
Kai-Uwe Waerner/European Pressphoto Agency
Steffi Graf announced the death onher website. News reports said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Peter Graf’s career in tennis was tempestuous. He was accused of verbally abusing officials, manipulating his daughter’s schedule to preserve her ranking and coaching her illegally from the stands. He got into a fistfight with an American millionaire at the French Open. Most notably, he was accused of mismanaging the millions his daughter had won and at one point was said to be carrying around her winnings in paper bags.
In 1997, Graf was convicted of failing to pay $7.3 million in taxes on his daughter’s earnings and attempting to evade another $1.8 million through a tangled scheme of shell companies and tax havens. He served 25 months in prison. The judge exonerated Steffi Graf.
News reports suggested that the tax matter had alienated father and daughter, as had a very public brouhaha in 1990, when a German magazine accused Peter Graf of fathering a daughter with a Playboy model. Openly distressed after that scandal broke, Steffi Graf was eliminated from the three remaining Grand Slam tournaments after winning three the previous year.
“I could not fight as usual,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1990.
Recent news reports and obituaries said that Peter Graf and Steffi had reconciled well before she visited him, six days before he died. She and her brother, Michael, said in a statement, “The memories of good times spent with him, especially when we were young, help us a great deal.”
When Stefanie Marie Graf was only hours old, her father proclaimed that she would be a champion. When she was 3 years 10 months old, he placed a sawed-off wooden racket in her hands. Soon the two were hitting balls back and forth across a living room couch. If she hit a ball back 25 times in a row, she was rewarded with ice cream and strawberries.
“Most of the time,” Peter Graf told The Los Angeles Times in 1987, “on the 25th ball, I would hit it too hard or so she could not return it, because you cannot have ice cream all the time.”
By the age of 6, Steffi was winning tournaments; at 13, she won the German junior 18-and-under championship. She turned professional a year later and went on to win 22 Grand Slam singles titles, a total second only to Margaret Court’s 24. In 1988, she became the first and only tennis player to win all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in a calendar year.
“I look up to his seat between every game for inspiration,” Steffi Graf said in a 1990 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “He’s so good to me.”
But “Rich Steffi, Poor Child,” a 1996 book by the German journalists Klaus Brinkbäumer, Hans Leyendecker and Heiner Schimmöller, painted a darker picture. The authors reported that Peter would slap his daughter if she missed a shot or failed to perfect a new stroke. They quoted a family friend and financial adviser, Horst Schmitt, who recalled Peter coming down from Steffi’s bedroom after a poor training session and boasting, “She’s had a good smacking.”
Peter Graf was born in Mannheim on June 18, 1938. His mother committed suicide, and his father, a German sports official, gave the boy to an aunt to raise. He dropped out of high school and eked out a living after World War II by buying used cars through newspaper advertisements and reselling them at a markup to American G.I.’s, who could not read the German ads themselves.
Graf was a top amateur soccer player in Germany but was forced to retire at 28 because of leg injuries. Having taken up tennis as well, he began to teach it and to manage a tennis club.
As his daughter’s career soared, he turned to coaching and managing her full time. Pointing out that someone had once sent her a jar of marmalade laced with poison, he said his most important job was to protect her.
In 1989, when other German pro athletes were fleeing to countries with lower taxes, he vowed to stay in Germany, where Steffi had an almost saintlike reputation. “I think we can afford the taxes,” he told Sports Illustrated. But for that year and the next three, he filed no returns.
His wife, Heidi, drove Steffi to tournaments, then flew with her to the far corners of the world. The couple divorced in 1999 after 31 years of marriage, and Peter Graf married Britta, Steffi’s former babysitter. Britta Graf and his two children survive him, as do several grandchildren.
In 2001, Steffi Graf married the tennis star Andre Agassi, whose own father, Mike, had rigged up a machine to shoot tennis balls at him at 110 miles per hour when he was 7. When the fathers met, what Agassi, in his memoir “Open,” called the “unavoidable moment” happened. After Mike Agassi showed Peter Graf the machine, they got into an argument over the merits of Steffi’s one-handed backhand and Andre’s two-hander. Graf took off his shirt, and both men raised fists. Andre broke them apart.