The Parent Trap

Steffi Graf serving at a special Wimbledon event, 2009. Photograph by Chris Eason.

Steffi Graf serving at a special Wimbledon event, 2009. Photograph by Chris Eason.

The death of Peter Graf – father of tennis legend Steffi Graf – Saturday in Germany reminds us that there is no stage parent quite like a tennis parent. We are taught never to speak ill of the dead, and yet as Shakespeare observes in “Julius Caesar,” “the evil that men do lives after them.” Peter Graf, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 75, was a manipulative, even abusive, father who mismanaged his daughter’s winnings and embarrassed her with a Playboy model liaison. (He was convicted of tax evasion and served a little more than two years in prison.)  

But he was also the man who spurred and inspired Steffi to become the only tennis player to date to win the Golden Slam – the four Grand Slam events plus the Olympic gold medal – in a calendar year. So there had to be something there, right?

In a statement, Steffi and her brother, Michael, said, “The memories of good times spent with him, especially when we were young, help us a great deal.”

How sad. Our relationships could be so much more, and yet they are such tangled affairs, mangled by ambition and the failure to realize how short life really is. That tennis is a supremely individualistic sport makes the relationship between child-star and parent  who is often, as in Peter Graf’s case, the coach – all the more intense.

In my novel “Water Music,” tennis superstar Alex Vyranos, has one of those familial coaches, Cousin Stavros,  who applies his own brand of brutality to results. It’s one of The Games Men Play that bleed into the present.

It’s no surprise that Steffi found happiness with Andre Agassi, who had his own volatile-father issues.

It’s also no surprise that the couple once gleefully told “60 Minutes” that neither of their children plays tennis.