“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground” — Steffi Graf quoted the US President Theodore Roosevelt, when speaking to 700-odd students of a South Mumbai school, as she balanced her celestial presence among star-struck teenagers sprinkling it with some practical advice about studies and books.
“Since we were all students, I guess, she consistently tried to emphasise on the fact that we balance between our sporting passion and our education. She repeatedly told us that studies are essential. She even quoted Theodore Roosevelt,” a student present at the private gathering, said.
“How was your transition from tennis to retirement?” another teenaged member of the audience is known to have asked breathlessly to the tennis goddess on her maiden visit to India as she lit up the stage at the Nehru Centre, Worli, on Tuesday.
The students, all in the 12-18 age bracket were in the midst of tennis’ divinity, perhaps the greatest known female athlete of the last few decades, but the fact that she’d retired 15 years ago (meaning half the crowd wasn’t even born when she stopped) didn’t dent any of the aura she brought to the discussion. Dressed in a maroon shirt tucked smartly into white pants, with her golden tresses flowing, what the students found most striking about the 22-time Grand Slam champion was her ramrod posture and the legendary poise as she answered chirpy posers candidly.
“Graf even spoke of her children and how she does not want to impose tennis upon them,” the student recalls. “She said ‘As a mother I do not want to impose tennis on my children. While my daughter enjoys hip-hop and is passionate about it, my son is playing baseball in a league.
“I got the impression she balances everything well and seems to have everything in control,” the student gushed. Her candour extended to a host of topics, including her most embarrassing moment as she also chuckled about the obsession of cricket in India. Graf had earlier in the day posed in front of the Taj at Agra, and flew down to Mumbai before heading back early on Wednesday at 3 am.
Responding to one of the questions, Graf apparently said that she’d been very tired towards the end of her career but was never completely disconnected from the sport that she started playing from the age of 3. Quite unprompted, she proceeded to speak of her meeting with her future husbad Andre Agassi. “She spoke briefly, but adoringly of Agassi. She said, ‘We are two different people’, but then told us how meeting him towards the end of her career had positively changed her life,” the student recalled.
Vijay Amritraj who moderated the discussion, bridged the two most fascinating parts of her life-story — as a pro player and as one half of tennis’ much-adored couple, for the benefit of the students. “Stef and I go back a long way. She is one of the most delightful people I’ve met, a remarkable person and an incredible inspiration even post her tennis career. It was Stef’s first visit to India. She shared that she and Andre love Indian food but Andre likes it more as he can handle the spice,” he explained.
Graf also narrated the most embarrassing moment of her life, cracking up the houseful auditorium. “She told us how a button in her skirt was once troubling her so much that she decided to leave in between a game point to adjust her attire and saved herself a moment of embarrassment rushing to the bathroom! It was delightful how openly she spoke about what must’ve been awkward.”
But she was also solemn when describing the challenge of being a champion at the top and how starting and travelling alone very young cultivated the competitiveness in her. “She told us tennis is a solo sport, and ‘out in the court I’ve learnt the concept of being alone.”
When asked about the International Premier Tennis League Graff is believed to have shared an observation “There are more cricket pitches than tennis courts in India. It’s like she was urging us to take up the sport because cricket was so dominant.” Prior to the start, Graf apparently shook hands with 23 school representatives and asked about the sashes worn by them. “She was curious to know each colour. It was small talk for two minutes after which she went on stage,” another student recalls.
“It’s her aura that one is struck by and she was very punctual. The event was to start by 2.45 pm, Graf was there at 2.40 pm by the clock. We took a couple of group pictures with her and I got to stand right next to her. Both of us are at six feet height and I’m glad I’m not shorter or I would have been a tad bit embarrassed. She appeared so fit that she could probably play a three hour long tennis match and win it!” the student noted. “I was in awe of her manners, the way she carried herself. Her posture was straight and even her stroll spoke of her confidence. The reason why I found her inspirational was because her experiences were not confined to tennis there was a lot to learn from it,” he added.
By Rohit Alok