TBT, 1988: Shriver upsets mighty Graf at Virginia Slims Championships

TBT, 1988: Shriver upsets mighty Graf at Virginia Slims Championships

The German's season record at that point was a phenomenal 73-2, with her only losses coming to Sabatini.

We know tons about the loser of a women’s match that took place in New York City on November 19, 1988. Less has been told about the winner.

Meet Pam Shriver.

Back in 1978, the 16-year-old Baltimore native had loudly announced herself as a significant contender. In her US Open debut that year, Shriver upset reigning Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova in the semis and strongly tested Chris Evert before losing the final, 7-5, 6-4.

By the mid-‘80s she’d established herself as one of the very best. From 1983-’85, Shriver finished the year ranked fourth in the world, a potential heir apparent to the Navratilova-Evert reign.

But then came others. In 1985, a pair of teenagers emerged—Gabriela Sabatini and Stefanie Graf. In only her second major, the 15-year-old Sabatini reached the semifinals at Roland Garros. The 16-year-old Graf advanced to the fourth round of Wimbledon that year too, her run ended by none other than Shriver.

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Shriver saw the shape of things to come. “Graf is going to be a Top-5 player within a year, mark my words,” wrote Shriver in her book Passing Shots, a diary of the 1985 tennis year. Later that summer, in the quarterfinals of the US Open, over the course of more than three humidity-saturated hours, Graf rallied from 1-4 down in the third to beat Shriver, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4).  

Three years later, Graf had more than fulfilled Shriver’s prediction. She attained the No. 1 ranking in ’87 and in ’88 was as dominant as anyone has ever been over the course of a calendar year. Graf won all four majors, dropping just two sets in 27 Grand Slam matches. Added icing came when Graf won the singles competition at that year’s Olympics. The year 1988 will forever be known as Graf’s Golden Slam.

At the Virginia Slims Championships, held those years in New York City at Madison Square Garden, Graf and Shriver met in the semis. Graf’s match record at that point was a phenomenal 73-2, her only losses coming to Sabatini.

As for Shriver, 1988 was a fine year, including a gold medal run of her own at the Olympics, when she won the doubles with Zina Garrison. But there had also been sobering and frustrating moments: a 6-1, 6-2 loss to Graf in the semis of Wimbledon and a second-round loss at the US Open to 41st-ranked Leila Meshki. At the age of 26, Shriver by then likely recognized that she was bracketed by brilliance—first Evert-Navratilova, now Graf, and possibly Sabatini.  

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But Shriver’s intelligence—a profound level of candor that made her catnip for journalists and eventually fueled her enduring broadcast career—also flavored the way she played tennis. Few players ever understood their significant assets more clearly than Pam Shriver. In her case, that meant constantly finding ways to get to the net and take advantage of her sharp volley skills and exceptional wingspan (Shriver stood six feet tall).

It had been a good week in New York. Prior to meeting Graf, Shriver earned a rare win versus Evert. Her excellent tennis continued versus Graf, a steady flow of net-rushing propelling Shriver to a 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory.

“I was concentrating as hard as I’ve ever concentrated,” said Shriver in a New York Times article on the match. “I’ve been trying to work on my emotions for quite a while. Never once did I rehash something.”   

Alas, the next day, in the best-of-five-set final, the youth movement continued—Shriver beaten by a zoning Sabatini, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

“I'm a little sad," said Shriver in a Washington Post story. "I had a great week. I'm not sad I lost but I'm sad that the week's over with . . . Yesterday, I had the biggest thrill of my life when I won that match.”