COMMENTARY : European Tabloids Torment Steffi Graf


Let's not waste any time today. We'll get right to the good stuff.

I'm reading The Sun where it says (no, where it screams) in big, bold letters: "THIS TART IS RUINING MY GAME, SAYS STEFFI."

The tabloids, if not the players, are in mid-tournament form, and if Steffi Graf never quite said those words, well, we've got papers to sell, folks, and we need scandal to sell them.

Maybe you've heard of the play, "No Sex Please, We're British." Who in the name of Mandy Rice Davies are they trying to kid?

Sex sells here. It sells like strawberries and cream.

Tennis, anyone?

In the tabloids, tennis is largely beside the point. (The way you know it's Wimbledon is that the topless girl on Page 3 is usually holding a tennis racket.) In famous tennis sex scandals past, we've had Bonking Boris, who, according to the tabs, bonked his way out of Wimbledon one year. We've had Martina Navratilova and Judy Nelson and Judy's kids, to whom, the tabloids said, Martina was a wonderful father, and they had pictures to prove it. Then there were Chrissie and Andy the Hunk (now married, meaning Evert is Mrs. Chrissie the Hunk), who were said to be fondling each other in a restaurant to the point where patrons were forced to leave (or, at least, wash up).

When they run out of sex, they go for the fantastic. Two years ago, one paper suggested aliens would invade Centre Court and kidnap Becker, where, presumably, Boris would not be bonking. These are dailies, folks. It's the National Enquirer seven days a week.

They never stop. When there are no tennis stars in town, they go for the royal family (especially Randy Andy and Fat Fergie) or any celebrity who's handy. The News of the World once led its paper thus: "Sir Ralph Goosed Maggie at No. 10." These days, of course, the soccer fans, called yobs, have been fighting their way through Europe with the tabloids sending their own war correspondents. Whatever keeps the presses running.

If you want more and can't cover your eyes, at least hold your ears, because here goes:

"Steffi: My Agony at Dad's Sex Scandal."

That was screaming from Page 1 of The (Daily) Mirror.

Today, also on Page 1, chipped in with: "My Chances Were Wrecked by Rival Who Wasn't Even on Tennis Court."

Graf never said any of the above. But there is an available scandal here, reported continually in the German tabloids, which are apparently the British equal, and merely seconded by the Fleet Streeters.

Back to the Wednesday's Sun for an explanation: "Tennis champion Steffi Graf said last night her game was being wrecked by a soft-porn model who claimed she had a love child by her father."

You might have heard about it. Nicole Meissner, a former Playboy model (pictured in The Sun in garter belt and bra), has said Peter Graf, Steffi's father and coach and mentor, is the father of her child. Meissner and an associate have been charged with blackmail, and German papers have alleged that Peter Graf paid them off.

It's a sordid tale, which grows more sordid each day, and what better kind is there?

In Quick, a German magazine, it is being reported that Nicole and Steffi and Dad have gone shopping together and that Nicole, when in Florida, had use of Steffi's Porsche. Good stuff, huh?

Good stuff unless you're Steffi Graf and you're trying to play tennis and live your life while your world falls apart in tabloids that pretend to be newspapers and sell millions for 22 pence apiece.

Graf did discuss the issue briefly Tuesday, in a failed effort to put it behind her. The scandal had come to light just in time for the German Open in Berlin, where her 66-match winning streak was ended by Monica Seles. It dogged her in Paris, where she lost to Seles again. Graf is 21, a grown-up, but not old enough for this.

Here's what she actually did say: "It hasn't made things easy, that's for sure, and I've had a tough time. Now, I don't want to talk about what is going on. ... Sometimes, it is quite difficult, but it has never been too much."

But in the upcoming issue of Stern, a reputable German magazine, she was much more forthcoming about the German tabloids, which literally stalk her.

"My defeats against Seles in Berlin and Paris were solely due to the smear campaign against my father in the newspapers," Stern quoted her as saying. "If the newspapers continue to hurt me and my family with their headlines, I might move to the United States and leave Germany for good. It has never been a question of stopping playing tennis, because I love tennis too much.

"I don't know why press people do this, because I haven't done anything to them. They just tried to smear my father's name, but he can cope much better than me with these nasty things. ... They do hurt me, and I am very angry at these people. Never in my life have I hated a human being, but I am sorry, I have to say this, I will never cease hating these people."

There is a price to pay for fame, but when does the price grow too high? Here's when: Jars of poisoned jam have been delivered to the Graf family home in Germany. Last April one fan made his way onto the grounds and actually slashed his wrists in front of a horrified Steffi. Now the house is protected by walls, barbed wire and cameras, but still the family is under siege.

After Tuesday's match, reporters chased Peter and Heidi Graf, screaming the expected questions. And so, Wednesday, in self-defense, the parents stayed away. You can see the headline already, can't you? "Mum and Dad Abandon Steffi in Her Hour of Need."

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