As Wimbledon comes to a close, we're counting down the 10 most memorable matches at the All England Club over the last 50 years.
“Women’s tennis, maligned and belittled for two weeks at Wimbledon, reared up and struck back on Saturday, at its most opportune moment.”
Those words may sound familiar to WTA fans today, but they were written 23 years ago, in the Los Angeles Times’ recap of the classic, but somehow largely forgotten, 1995 final between Graf and Sanchez Vicario at the All England Club.
During that fortnight, the London press had pilloried the WTA’s players for being overweight and unfit, and for playing a “boring” brand of tennis. Graf and Sanchez Vicario closed the tournament with the perfect response: a two hour, two minute test of wills, skills, nerves, and, yes, fitness that was never dull. It was the 14th straight final between the German and the Spaniard, and they capped it with what many have called the greatest game ever played.
Graf and Sanchez Vicario were the No. 1 and 2 seeds, and they had already traded the top ranking back and forth six times that year. The previous fall, Sanchez Vicario had upset Graf for the US Open title, while Graf had avenged herself at the French Open that spring. As always, those finals brought out the brilliant contrasts between these two: The long-limbed German leaped and launched her bolo-punch forehand, then bent and buzzed her slice backhand. The scrappy, scrambling, grunting Spaniard did whatever it took—slice, stab, loop, drop shot, lob—to force Steffi to launch one more ground stroke.
This time, though, Sanchez Vicario was the one who came out firing. She was the one who moved forward, pounded her forehand into the corners, showed off her underrated touch at net, and lost just four points on serve in taking the first set, 6-4, in a crisp 30 minutes. Graf, as always, answered in the second set. In the third, both women rose to the occasion, as they pushed and pulled each other across the fast-browning grass.
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The occasion reached a sustained summit with Sanchez Vicario serving at 5-5. The 11th game was one for the ages, but not for the faint of heart, or the out of shape: It lasted 20 minutes and 32 points, and went to deuce 13 times. Sanchez Vicario fist-pumped after her winning points, until she couldn’t fist-pump anymore. Graf kept up her stony facade, until she couldn’t keep it up anymore, and finally broke up laughing. The NBC commentators, Dick Enberg and Chris Evert, celebrated each winner and counted each deuce, until they finally went silent and let the points speak for themselves.
Points have rarely spoken so eloquently. Graf whipped her forehands from one corner to the other, while Sanchez Vicario answered by threading her passing shots crosscourt and down the line. Every other rally seemed to end with a ball that landed on the line. After surviving break points, Sanchez Vicario kissed her racquet frame in thanks. Graf, after pummeling home an overhead—she hit 10 winning smashes in that game alone—threw a clenched left fist into the air
“That produced the best tennis of both of us,” Graf said. “Neither of us played loose points, nobody gave up. We really tried, both of us, we were going for it. We tried to come in, nobody let up. There was some great tennis.”
“I know the people in the crowd were getting excited because it was longer and longer, Sanchez Vicario said. “But in my mind I just tried to be calm and concentrate on each point.”
Graf reached break point six times, while Sanchez Vicario had eight chances to hold. But Sanchez Vicario also had to serve 44 times. Finally, on her sixth break point, Graf pushed Sanchez Vicario into her backhand corner, and Sanchez Vicario couldn’t find an answer. Instead, her backhand found the net, and Graf had a 6-5 lead.
The Centre Court fans gave both players a standing ovation through the changeover.
“It’s never happened to me before in my career, and never probably ever meant as much at such a stage of a match,” said Graf of the crowd’s appreciation. Suffering from a bad back, she had been injected with an anti-inflammatory beforehand. “I was so tired, I was like, Wow. I was really tired to go out there and serve, and I really didn’t have the feeling that this was going to be it.”
Whatever Graf had left, though, it was more than Sanchez Vicario. Graf held at love for her sixth Wimbledon title. She even had the energy to serve and volley on the final point, and to bolt up to her player box to celebrate afterward. She and Sanchez Vicario had silenced the WTA doubters—at least for a day. But Graf knew that the penultimate game, and thus the match, could have gone either way.
“Ever in doubt,” steely Steffi admitted, with a laugh, when it was over.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.