By pounding a tennis ball, Steffi Graf has always been able to cast out any demons that stalk her on the court. Still, troubles are coming at the young German star from all sides now.
On Tuesday, in her first-round match at the U.S. Open, Graf expelled her most recent demon, the embarrassing memory of a first-round loss to Amanda Coetzer two weeks ago.
Graf, seeded No. 1, wavered but eventually defeated Coetzer, 6-7 (7-1), 6-1, 6-4.
The pairing of Coetzer, ranked No. 22, and Graf, ranked co-No. 1, could not have been seen as a favorable draw for either. Coetzer reached the quarterfinals here last year and had been on a recent tear, having defeated three top-five players. She handed Graf her first loss of the year before losing to Monica Seles in the Canadian Open at Toronto.
Graf was wary of Coetzer’s ability but eager to gain retribution.
“I have to admit, I don’t particularly like losing,” Graf said. “I definitely wanted to play her as soon as I could. I knew it was not going to be easy, because I haven’t had a lot of matches, but I was definitely looking forward to it.”
The top-seeded men advanced easily in first-round matches. Andre Agassi made quick work of Bryan Shelton of Atlanta, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, and Pete Sampras defeated Fernando Meligeni of Brazil, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4.
The only seeded player who lost is Iva Majoli of Croatia. Austrian Barbara Paulus defeated the No. 13 seeded player, 6-4, 6-4.
In contrast to the smooth advance of Agassi and Sampras, Graf struggled. She looked thin and lacked her characteristic power. She has been bothered by pain from bone spurs in her back and by new revelations about the status of her father, Peter Graf. He is in a German prison, charged with tax evasion by fraudulently filing his daughter’s returns.
A few years ago, Graf had to play through her father’s humiliating extramarital affair with a “model” who claimed she was carrying his child.
Intensely private, Graf rarely responds to personal questions, but there are more now thanever. On Tuesday, she was asked if her current emotional state was affecting her tennis.
Uncharacteristically, Graf gave a direct answer, then elaborated.
“Yes, it is,” she said. “Obviously, at certain times I have difficulty concentrating out there because I haven’t really been able to practice much, but that is pretty much [because of] my back. I haven’t had much time to get in the position that I would like to. So I definitely lack confidence.”
Graf admitted that she has been staying in her Manhattan apartment at night because of stakeouts by paparazzi.
“It is not a joy to go out and have people in front of your house; that is obvious,” Graf said. “I am trying not to let it affect me. I am doing what I want to do, and I am realizing that people are around my apartment, but I am trying to put it aside. I just do what I want to do.”
Graf was asked about a press report this week that said she was being stalked by a woman who was lurking outside her apartment.
“I have no knowledge of that,” she said. “All the people I [see] are men.”
Coetzer gave Graf fits in the first set, matching her deep ground strokes shot for shot and forcing Graf to go to her unreliable slice backhand. Coetzer took the first set in a tiebreaker but needed nine set points to do it.
Graf righted herself in the second set by breaking Coetzer’s serve in the first game and allowing the unseeded player only one game in the set.
Graf closed out the match in the third set, after 2 hours 14 minutes.