Straight Outta Heidelberg

Wednesday, December 10, 2008 /by

“In your face” was one of the mantras of the 1980s. This unsubtle era was bent on erasing all vestiges of the touchy-feely decades that had preceded it. The 80s gave us Mike Tyson, they gave us NWA, they voted Margaret Thatcher their MVP. You might have thought the ivory-towered world of tennis would have remained above this particular cultural fray, but you’d have been wrong. John McEnroe, the most in-your-face athlete of all, became the biggest name in the game just as the 80s began.

The trend didn’t end with Johnny Mac’s terrorization of the All England Club. The decade’s real legacy, as far as how the game is played, came four years later with the seismic shift toward power and explosive athleticism—in your face tennis was here, and it was here to stay. What now seems odd, at least to me, is that the earliest harbingers of this transformation were two teenagers, Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, who had grown up at the same time and in the same obscure place, the suburbs of Heidelberg, West Germany. What was in the water over there?

Two Germans at once; two Belgian women at once; three Serbs at once—is there any explanation for tennis’ seemingly random nationalistic surges? West Germany hadn’t had a No. 1 player on either tour during the Open era. Then, within about 24 months, they produced two players who would change the sport forever. Graf and Becker had even practiced together as kids. “I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls,” Becker said of Graf, “and I all the time had to hit with her.” They taught each other something special.

I’ll talk more about the long-term influence of these two, who remain among my favorite players to watch, even in the tiny snippets available on You Tube. For today let’s begin where each of them began, at Wimbledon, in 1984 (Graf, in the clip above) and 1985 (Becker, in the clip below).

—Graf was, to put it mildly, all legs at 15. She already had her supremely focused back-and-forth sway as she waited to return serve, as if she couldn’t wait to prove her opponent’s shot wrong.

—Love the Brit announcers again, this time anchored by Dan Maskell. After so many parodies of their sports commentators (particularly on the Simpsons), I have to remind myself this is a real match, not a comic skit.

—How easily Graf skips on her toes as Jo Durie tosses the ball to serve. Did Graf have the best split-step in tennis history? She got so high you could have called it a “split-jump.”

—Graf to me seems to me the quintessential young player here: Hiding her face under her hair, keeping her head down, but also giving tiny fist-pumps after winning points. She's the picture of shy determination. Isn’t that what good tennis is all about?

—She instinctively shortens her forehand backswing for her return, not something that’s necessarily teachable. And Graf is successful coming over her backhand, a shot that would always trouble her.

—The Dunlop Max 200g. A beautiful and influential racquet. Heavy as hell, too.

—Did Graf already have a watch sponsor?

—Even at 15, she isn’t happy to have played well and lost. Graf is enraged instead, and she gives Durie an early sample of the blink-and-you-missed-it handshake that would irritate Martina Navratilova in the coming years. Then Steffi sets the record for the quickest curtsey to the royal box in Wimbledon history. Right from the beginning, her cold resolve masked deep emotion. That combination is also where most good tennis comes from.

—Maskell at the end: “We’ll see her again, no doubt about that.”

Graf made the fourth round of Wimbledon at 15, but Becker one-upped his countrywoman the next year by winning the whole thing. Above are highlights from the final, a four-set win over Kevin Curren.

—Has there ever been a tennis player who came out of the gates so fully formed? Only Rafael Nadal at the 2005 French Open comes close. Like Nadal, Becker’s 1985 run had the air of destiny. Violent destiny. Becker was 17; Nadal 18.

—With that bowl cut, Becker looks every bit the teen. Tennis really does favor the young, the very young. I’ve often wondered: Does that mean that, after all the talk of tactics, it’s a mindless game at bottom, one based on raw physical gifts? Or is it just that having a young mind, not clouded by doubt, helps? Whichever it is, Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon run is still tennis’ greatest tribute to the wide-eyed spirit of youth.

—This was the ornery Curren’s 15 minutes in the sun. Most famous quote: After losing early at Flushing Meadows later that year, he said the “USTA should be shot” and an “A-bomb” should be dropped on New York City.

—Did Becker already have a watch deal? Or were watches just a German 80s teen thing?

—Like Nadal, Becker wasn’t just fully formed as a player, but as a performer as well. He dove, he stared his older opponents down, he had at least two varieties of fist-pump, and best of all he finished the final with a little quick-legged strut forward. In two weeks, he had made the game not only more explosive, but more demonstrative.

—In these clips you see how good Becker’s return was. These were the low-bounce days of grass, and he was still able to come over his backhand and rifle return winners. Like Graf, he had a big-shot game from the start—big serve, opportunistic return, heavy forehand, all-court skill—which made him dangerous in any important match. Becker was 38-3 in Davis Cup singles, for example. He wouldn’t become a consistent No. 1 like Graf, but he would always be a money player. In the fourth set in this final, Becker broke Curren in the opening game and then held five straight times for the title.

—The sad side to this is that Becker would never top these two weeks in 1985—how could he? That seemed to wear on his psyche, to turn it darker than we might have expected, as the years went on.

More on the Heidelberg twins tomorrow.

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