Thursday morning, well before summer in the city got dirty and gritty, dozens of girls gathered at the Central Park public tennis courts to await visiting royalty.
About 8:30 a.m., the two queens arrived, first Billie Jean King and then Steffi Graf.
Make that Stefanie Graf, who, the program director/master of ceremonies explained to the gathering, “does not like to be called Steffi. Other people put that on her.”
Like the Wizard of Westwood who didn’t want to be a wizard but could never quite shed the label, Stefanie Graf will never quite stop being Steffi. Millions of mentions in the media over the last 30 years have burned “Steffi” into our consciousness like we were compact discs.
This is not the U.S. Open, which was taking place miles away. But it was happening because of it. Big events draw big names, and some big names are willing to leave the luxury suites and the cocktail parties to spread tennis gospel to the masses. Thursday, Graf and King did so.
A group of top players, girls from about ages 7 to 17, were chosen for a clinic. The watchmaker Longines sponsored the day, a few cameras showed up and tennis was preached. That happens all over the country, but not often in the presence of, and with the help of, the likes of Graf and King.
The master of ceremonies introduced them as “two of the greatest tennis players on the planet.”
Hard to argue.
When King stepped away from the game in 1983, with a few stop-and-start appearances after that, she had won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, 16 Grand Slam doubles titles and 11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. She is 66 now, coming back strong from double knee replacement surgery in February and still championing every cause she deems worthy and can fit into a nonstop schedule.
When Graf called it quits in 1999, there were no later starts and stops. She laughs about calling boyfriend — now husband — Andre Agassi after leaving the San Diego tournament that year and saying she was stopping.
“I told him, ‘That’s it,’ ” she said Thursday. Agassi thought she meant she was going to stop playing for a while and rehabilitate her injuries. “I said, ‘No, that’s it.’ ”
And so it was, Graf, now 41, retiring with 22 Grand Slam singles titles and a Joe DiMaggio-like 376 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world. In 1988, she won all four majors, plus the gold medal in women’s singles in the Seoul Olympics. Nobody else has done that. Only one other person has won all four majors at least once — but not in the same year — plus an Olympic gold medal in singles. That would be her husband.
Graf told the lucky attendees that she started playing when she was about 6 but didn’t really like it until later.
“I lost the first match I played in a tournament,” she said. “I didn’t want to play until later. When I got to be 13, I realized I was good at it.”
King had a similar message.
“The first summer I played in tournaments,” she said, “I won only one match. But the more I lost, the more fired up I got.”
Graf said she sometimes misses the closer connections to tennis.
“It has given me great memories,” she said. “It has also given me a great life. Because of tennis, I met my husband and have my two children. And I also have my foundation [Children for Tomorrow].”
King’s main message to the girls was that “champions adjust.” She said you can go one of two ways when you are about to receive serve on break point.
“You can say, ‘Please, God, make them double-fault.’ Or, you can want the ball.”
She said that wanting the ball carries over into real life.
Soon, it was time to go to work.
Graf, who stayed for several hours as the heat began to sizzle, went to the baseline and did what every club pro has done thousands of times. She hit balls. And hit and hit, as the girls chased and returned. It was unmistakable, even with this sort of pitty-pat tennis. Fraulein Forehand, as tennis media legend Bud Collins christened her years ago, still had it, looking as if she could still make the quarterfinals of that big tournament out in Flushing Meadows.
King stuck around for a while too, signing every autograph and chatting with anybody not too shy to approach.
One young man, 6-year-old Donovan, short, bristly dark hair and wide, dark eyes, waited patiently for an autograph. King responded with a flourish, writing her advice above the BJK autograph: GO FOR IT!!!
It was that sort of triple-exclamation-point day for all, courtesy of Graf and King.