My first distinct tennis memories are matches between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in the 1982 Wimbledon men’s championship and the 1984 US Open semifinal. Both were five set thrillers, but I did not start following tennis regularly until Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985. French Open matches did not make much of an impression on me until 1987. For that, I must thank Steffi Graf.
1987: Boredom with the Big Two
Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova staged a tight three set French Open final in 1986. At 10 years of age, I was a bit bored by how frequently these two met in big matches. I recall Steffi Graf pushing Navratiolva hard at the 1986 US Open and thinking this is who I will pull for in women’s tennis. Graf beat Navratilova 6-3, 6-2 in Miami as she started 1987 off on a tear. Graf moved to #2 in the rankings pitting Navratilova and Evert against one another in a semifinal rather than a final. Navratilova beat Evert 6-2, 6-2 to reach the final while reversing two consecutive French Open championship losses to Evert. Graf beat another new face in Gabriella Sabatini 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. This set up a match that I hoped would usher in a new queen of women’s tennis and end the dual reigns of Martina and Evert.
Maybe Tiriac had it right – this video feed from the red clay and non-high definition cameras is awful
Half of my wish came true. Graf won her first Grand Slam title by beating Navratilova 6-4, 4-6, 8-6. Graf won in large part because of how error prone and nervy Navratilova was in that match. Graf showed mental fortitude by winning a long third set against a great champion, but this was not a dethroning. Martina would beat Steffi in straight sets to win both the 1987 Wimbledon and US Open titles. It was exciting for me as a young fan to see my favorite player win her first major, but I feel a bit silly looking back at my disdain for the excellence that Navratilova and Evert displayed. Then again I was 10 years old.
1988: Double Bagel
Steffi Graf won the 1988 Australian Open, but beat Evert instead of Navratilova in the final. Graf was ahead on computer points due to playing and winning far more events than her veteran rival, but it was still unclear as to who was the best player on the women’s tour. Graf owned the #1 ranking and reigned in Melbourne and Paris. Martina was the titleholder in London and New York. Navratilova expected to win Paris and said as much. Instead she was shocked by the former #1 junior player Natalia Zvereva. The young Russian put off a Graf Navratilova showdown until Wimbledon 1988 by winning 6-3, 7-6. As shocking as the match was, Graf administered a career altering defeat of Zvereva by winning the championship match 6-0, 6-0 in 32 minutes. Graf now had two legs of the Grand Slam under her belt and the debate about #1 was clearing up to a degree. Her win over Martina in London one month later cleared up any doubts about who the #1 player in tennis was.
My memories of this final all revolve around how quick the match was. I was elated to see Steffi win yet another slam. Zvereva went on to become a highly decorated doubles champion, but this loss seemed to sap the joy out of singles for her for many years. Zvereva saved two match points in her semifinal win and perhaps a big upset followed by a win and a close loss in the French Open semifinal round would have served her better than being demoralized by Graf who was quite invincible that day.
1989: No One Saw It Coming
Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988. She opened 1989 with a convincing defense of her Australian Open title. Some wondered if she would become bored with tennis due to her dominance. If Graf was going to be beaten in 1989, people figured it would be her contemporary Gabriella Sabatini via a herculean effort. This was not to be as Sabatini lost in the round of 16. Graf played a youngster named Monica Seles in the semifinal round. I remember in the first set thinking how ridiculous it was that Seles was trying to overpower Graf. That strategy seemed about as wise as trying to drown the ocean. Graf won the first set 6-3. In the second set, the player hitting two-handed backhands and forehands (!) did knock Graf out of her comfort zone and took the set 6-3. Steffi’s experience pulled her through in the third set with another 6-3 set. Still, Seles looked like a champion to me.*
Graf faced Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the final. Graf was taller, had more weapons and seemed like a lock. Sanchez-Vicario kept running balls down. NBC tape-delayed coverage foreshadowed the upset by saying Graf only makes headlines if she loses. However in the age before widespread internet acces, I had no idea who won the match. NBC showed the first set won surprisingly by the Spaniard 7-6. NBC then did a quick summary of the second set won by Graf 6-3. In the final set, I watched as Graf sprayed a number of errors against her never-say-die opponent. I was both dismayed and shocked as Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario pulled one of the upsets of the decade in a 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 win over Steffi Graf.
Attacking the net helped the tireless retriever win the match
This match was not the end for Graf, but Seles attacked Graf’s slice with power. Sanchez-Vicario made jaunts into the net off of Steffi’s backhand as well as drawing errors from her forehand. There was now a book with several chapters on how to play against the invincible champion. Steffi from 1987 through 1989 took me as a fan through a ride of challenging the powers that be, to becoming the lone power in women’s tennis and finally to being dethroned in Paris. Graf would have to wait until 1993 to win the French Open again. It was a great ride as a fan. Steffi also provided a few more French Open memories that I will get to in the coming days.
Tyson losing to Douglas was a lot like Graf losing in this situation
* In early 1990 when everyone was hyping Jennifer Captiati, I kept thinking that Seles was the real story.