Obituary: Peter Graf / Father of tennis great exerted volatile control

June 18, 1938 - Nov. 30, 2013

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Peter Graf, who as the coach and manager of tennis great Steffi Graf acquired the nickname Papa Merciless for his stern control of almost every aspect of his daughter's life, died Saturday in Mannheim, Germany. He was 75.

Steffi Graf announced the death on her 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 tournament winnings in paper bags.

In 1997, Mr. 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.

Recent news reports and obituaries said Peter Graf and his daughter 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 in 1969, 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.

By the age of 6, Steffi was winning tournaments; at 13, she won the German junior 18-and-under championship in 1982. She turned professional later that year 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 German journalists Klaus Brinkbaeumer, Hans Leyendecker and Heiner Schimmoeller, 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.

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 GIs, who could not read the German ads themselves.

Mr. 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.


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