Peter Graf, 75; tempestuous coach of tennis star daughter

Steffi Graf with her father in 1989 during the US Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. She defeated Martina Navratilova.
Kai-Uwe Waerner/EPA
Steffi Graf with her father in 1989 during the US Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. She defeated Martina Navratilova.

NEW YORK — 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 her life, died Saturday in Mannheim, Germany. He was 75.

Steffi Graf announced the death on her website. 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 scheme of shell companies and tax havens. He served 25 months in jail. The judge exonerated Steffi Graf.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

News reports suggested that the tax matter had alienated father and daughter, as had a very public brouhaha in 1990, when a magazine accused Peter Graf of fathering a daughter with a Playboy model. Distressed after that scandal broke, Steffi Graf was eliminated from the three remaining Grand Slam tournaments after winning three the previous year.

“I could not fight as usual,” she said in 1990.

Recent news reports and obituaries said that 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, 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.


“Most of the time,” Mr. Graf told The Los Angeles Times, “on the 25th ball, I would hit it too hard or so she could not return it, because you cannot have ice cream all the time.”

By the age of 6, Steffi was winning tournaments; at 13, she won the German junior 18-and-under championship. She turned professional a year later 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. “He’s so good to me.”

Peter Graf was born in Mannheim. 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.

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.