BRUEHL, WEST GERMANY, JULY 17 -- Steffi Graf was supposed to be the one success wouldn't spoil, the German hero who stayed loyal to her home, the innocent girl who couldn't wait to bound over to her father-manager after each victory.
There haven't been many of those congratulatory hugs of late. And amid the general euphoria over their country's World Cup championship, the fickle fans of Germany are wondering about their 21-year-old tennis wunderkind.
First she started losing -- after 66 consecutive victories, three powerful blows, at Berlin, the French Open and Wimbledon. Then the rumors flews -- lurid stories about her father, a model, and $430,000 in hush money. Now Steffi Graf is bitter and hurt, talking about bailing out of Germany and moving to Florida, blaming her losses on despised reporters interested only in selling newspapers.
Could she be like Boris Becker, the other tennis god, the fresh-faced boy who captured German hearts and then broke them?
Could Graf follow Becker down the road of riches to a life of free spending, a string of sweethearts? It seems inconceivable to Germans who know a different Graf, the one who returns whenever possible to this quiet dorf of 14,000 people tucked in the Rhine River valley between Cologne and Bonn.
"Here in Bruehl, you can see Steffi lead a normal life," says the mayor, Guenther Reffert, who considers the Graf clan his town's most valuable asset. "You can see her walk her dog, shop in the supermarket. She is known, of course, but no one bothers her. I am sure she will stay here; the Grafs have just built a new house and tennis hall."
But outside the protective cocoon the mayor and her parents have spun, Graf is troubled.
One British tennis writer concluded after her losses that Graf "increasingly looks and sounds rather bored with it all."
This week, Graf and her family went to their house in Boca Raton, Fla., so Steffi could recuperate from a recent sinus operation, escape the pressure and be as far as possible from her detractors -- mostly the editors and reporters of the paper Germans love to hate, Bild.
Bild, an oversized red, black and white paper that boasts the highest circulation of any daily in the free world, is a bizarre mix of cheesecake, political intrigue and old-fashioned scandal-mongering.
Bild makes heroes and Bild breaks heroes. And when Bild is on its game, it does both.
Becker and Graf hardly needed pumping up: Two German kids who practiced together when they were eight, growing up in neighboring small towns playing a not-very popular sport, became world-famous in their mid-teens. Their every match was shown on national television. Their biographies fill shelves. They endorsed every imaginable product.
And the fans wanted to know more. And the journalists, ever eager to satisfy, wanted to tell their stories. That's where Bild -- and its big bucks -- came in.
For major money -- tennis insiders here say about 1 million marks (about $600,000) each -- Bild signed Graf and Becker to exclusive contracts. For every major match, the players would tell their stories to Bild, which would splash their pictures and words all over its front, back and inside pages.
It was fawning, fan magazine stuff. And the more Becker and Graf won, the more everyone ate it up.
Then Becker began to seem mortal. And as the end of his Bild contract neared, the paper turned on him. Suddenly beloved Becker was a trifle, well, there were all those girls. A few telephoto lenses, some payments here and there, and the Soiling of Boris was underway.
Becker's image suffered in part from the exposes of Bild and the rest of what Germans call the "boulevard press." But Becker didn't help matters by moving to Monaco to escape German taxes. This didn't go over well.
"The German people have problems with stars, political, sports or otherwise," said Ralf-Peter Riepschlager, Bild's tennis writer who put together Steffi Graf's reports on her daily doings. "They make them into a god and then they want to take them down."
Becker, outraged, sought sympathetic ears and unloaded. "Some mornings, I read the newspaper at breakfast," Becker told West Germany's Tennis magazine. "They serve the readers so many lies every day that it's just incomprehensible to me."
All of which just sells more papers. So when Graf showed that even she might be mortal, the script was a familiar one.
The timing is a matter of hot debate. Graf started losing in May, when Monica Seles beat her in the finals of the Berlin Open. Shortly after that, Bild began a series of front-page stories on the Father Graf Affair.
Nearly every day, Bild bannered a headline about Nicole Meissen, the 22-year-old former Playboy model who accused Peter Graf of fathering her baby. And nearly every day, the story was accompanied by a photo of Meissen clad only in boxer shorts, or only in a garter, or only in her onlyness.
"It's Becker all over again," says Helmut Zimmermann, who covers Graf and her family for the German Sports Information Service. "When you have a contract with Bild and it ends, watch out."
Nonsense, says Riepschlager. "Just a coincidence," he said. "We would have printed these stories anytime, contract or no."
The Meissen story has been fast-paced, the kind you have to buy the paper every day to follow: Meissen is thrown in jail on suspicion of blackmailing Graf; Prosecutors say Meissen is paid hush money; Meissen takes back her paternity charge against Graf (even though his name is on the child's birth certificate.)
Through it all, Peter Graf said nothing.
Nor did his daugher, but the strain showed. She was seen crying after Seles beat her a second time, in Paris. Graf beat her racket against a locker room wall after the Berlin Open.
And now, like Becker, Graf has struck back. In an interview in Stern magazine, a depressed and dejected Steffi says it was not Seles but "an opponent who wasn't on the court" who beat her in Berlin and Paris.
"Yes, I lost both finals to this German press." When she heard what Bild and Quick, a slick magazine, had reported about her father, Steffi said, "I had a driver take me into the woods and I ran around by myself. Then I sat and thought to myself, 'You have to be above this.' "
It didn't work. "I haven't done anything against these press people. They pretend they're only questioning my father. In reality, they're getting at me.
"I have never in my life hated people. So I'm sorry, but I must say: I hate these people. . . . I can't take it anymore. If I only knew how to defend myself.
"I fear that what they did to Boris, now they are doing to me."
In public Graf stands by her father. But Zimmermann of the German Sports Information Service and others who know her well say that Peter Graf's control of his daughter's career and life was waning even before he became the stuff of scandal.
"It's the difference between a 16-year-old daughter and a young woman of 21," Zimmermann says. "The relationship is finally changing. Maybe she's finally getting away from that isolated life in Bruehl, the golden cage where the clan sticks together and no one goes in or out."
Striking photos of a suddenly fashionable Steffi accompany the Stern interview. Sometimes she looks slick. For once, she reveals the vulnerability that was never part of the superstar image.
In the end, Graf makes it clear that she intends to return to her winning ways. She hopes to play in the Canadian Open July 30, but her sinus problem is not likely to have healed sufficiently by then.
Which makes her next major goal the U.S. Open. "I know Steffi," Zimmermann says, "and with nose or without, she will play the U.S. Open."
When she does, those around her say Graf will be on her own in a way she has not been before. Her father will be at courtside, but the Graf on the court will be one who, asked what her greatest unfulfilled wish is, says, "My most passionate desire is for a black panther. Then you'll see what I do with him."