Golden Girl in Paris

Thursday, December 11, 2008 /by

In what other line of business can you go from promising rookie at 15 to the peak of your career at 19? In this sense, women’s tennis is like nothing else I can think of, for better and for worse. Its fan base seems at least partly drawn by the surreal spectacle of seeing teenage superathlete divas go toe to toe for tons of money and prestigious titles. It makes for drama and emotion that the men have trouble matching, and for remarkable battles of will—irresistable forces versus immovable objects—like the one we'll see below.

I thought we needed to watch Graf at her peak in 1988, her glory year, when she won all the majors plus Olympic gold at age 19. It’s a year that might conceivably be equaled, but can never be surpassed. Is it greater than Laver’s 1969? I can’t say, because that means you would have to label one of those seasons as worse.

I didn’t find a lot of high-quality stuff from the Golden Slam—no U.S. Open, no Seoul, a bad video of her win over Evert in Australia—so I settled on the last 10 minutes of her 6-3, 7-6 (3) semifinal win at the French Open over her semi-rival and doubles partner at the time, the much-missed Gabriela Sabatini. Two days later, Graf would humiliate Natasha Zvereva love and love for the title. This at least was a competitive match.

—It looks overcast, which at Roland Garros means that everything slows down, the ball, the rallies, the players, and the tempo. You can see that in the measured way that both of these women approach points. Graf seems more patient than usual. Sabatini seems exhausted.

—Graf’s game: Was it more influential on men’s tennis than women’s? Is there anyone who followed in her serve-forehand footsteps on the WTA side? Her forehand was certainly one of a kind: Late take-back, late contact point, quick whip into the follow through—as I’ve said before, it was one shot that had the force of nature.

—Watching Graf and Becker as teens, I’d say they what they had in common the most was a sort of hell-bent all-court fearlessness that briefly broke down old divisions in the sport. Becker hurled his body all over the place and right through the barrier between baseliner and net-rusher. He was both at once. Graf broke down the idea of “changing the direction of the ball.” She ran around her forehand as much as any woman I can remember, and in doing that she developed the ability to hit it from anywhere, to anywhere, at any time.

—I do miss the twirly, painterly quality of Sabatini’s ground strokes, and that slow John Wayne walk she did between points. You can see her trying to slow Graf’s tempo. That’s a lost cause. Steffi still kept an extra ball in her hand when she served; she didn’t stop for a drink, or for anything, during the change of ends in the tiebreaker; and even on crucial points she refused to take an extra second before serving.

—Graf also didn't react much differently whether she won or lost a point. This was a great strength of hers, and perhaps she played quickly in order to put whatever had come before out of her mind.

—Graf won six titles at Roland Garros, but I’d say she had a grass game rather than a clay game. She does a good job of measuring her strokes here, slowing herself down, and not going for broke immediately. She seemed in her element more at Wimbledon, where she could win with forehand drives alone.

—A fair amount of net play here from Graf, especially on clay. As you might expect, she had a killer overhead most of the time, and she was too athletic to park herself at the baseline all day.

—In the middle of the breaker, you can see Graf “step it up,” as the cliché goes. She knows she can end the mach here, so she runs around a Sabatini serve to pummel a forehand, then takes control of the next point with another big forehand. Graf is known as the all-time athlete and mover, but she couldn’t have won so many matches without knowing just when to turn that athleticism on.

—Obviously the serve was a major key between these two. Sabatini looked like she was starting all of her service points uphill; Graf went downhill on hers.

—In the end, this is a pretty routine win for Graf, over one of the best players in the world at the time. No more proof of her dominance in 1988 is needed.

We’ve moved four years ahead, to one of the best matches that Graf was involved in during her career, the 1992 French final, which she lost to Monica Seles 8-6 in the third.

—No courts are as changeable as those at Roland Garros. I can't tell if it's sunny, but on this day the ball appears to be flying; it’s a different game from the one played by Graf and Sabatini four years earlier.

—It’s also different because Seles has increased the speed of the women’s game incrementally. The fact that she blasted mercilessly with two hands on both sides has probably made her the more influential player of the two. You can see—and hear—the Williams sisters coming when you watch Seles in ’92.

—If anything, Graf is hitting her forehand closer to her body and pulling up on it more quickly and violently than she did in '88. She’s also making more errors with it. Through the mid-90s, she would periodically have days when she couldn’t find the court, or the broad side of a barn if one had been there, with that shot.

—Seles may not have been the world’s greatest mover, but she seemed to read Graf’s forehand extraordinarily well.

—Watching this, I find myself missing the rangy mix of speed and power that Graf brought to the court. Venus Williams is probably the closest descendant to her today—it's entertaining just watching each of them cover a court. Like any tennis champion, Graf was an aberration at some level. Her quiet—"still waters run deep" comes to mind—hunger to win and almost-haughty focus were things to marvel at, not to try to imitate.

Tomorrow a look at Graf’s fearsome late-career match against Venus Williams, when the guard at Wimbledon didn’t quite change; plus Becker’s greatest defeat.

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