The Tennis 128: No. 2, Steffi Graf

I’m counting down the 128 best players of the last century. Separation anxiety is starting to set in… * * * Steffi Graf [GER] Born: 14 June 1969 Career: 1984-99 Plays: Right-handed (one-handed backhand) Peak rank: 1 (1987) Peak Elo rating: 2,601 (1st place, 1990) Major singles titles: 22 Total singles titles: 107   * … Continue reading The Tennis 128: No. 2, Steffi Graf

The Tennis 128: No. 2, Steffi Graf
Steffi Graf in 2009
Credit: Chris Eason

I’m counting down the 128 best players of the last century. Separation anxiety is starting to set in…

* * *

Steffi Graf [GER]
Born: 14 June 1969
Career: 1984-99
Plays: Right-handed (one-handed backhand)
Peak rank: 1 (1987)
Peak Elo rating: 2,601 (1st place, 1990)
Major singles titles: 22
Total singles titles: 107
 

* * *

13 points.

No one expected 13th seed Natasha Zvereva to actually beat Steffi Graf. At the 1988 French Open, Graf was the world number one and the defending champion. She hadn’t lost to anyone other than Martina Navratilova or Gabriela Sabatini in more than two years. Sabatini pushed her to a second-set tiebreak in the semifinals, but the German’s first five opponents managed a grand total of eleven games.

Zvereva, in the other half of the draw, was the surprise of the tournament. She upset Navratilova in the fourth round, then backed up the victory with a routine quarter-final defeat of sixth-seed Helena Suková. She was only 17 years old; maybe she had a few more tricks up her sleeve? In the final, perhaps she could make things interesting and keep Steffi on court for more than an hour.

Or not. In her first service game, Zvereva reached 40-30. Graf ran around a wide serve to launch her trademark inside-out forehand, erasing the game point. That was as close as the Belarusian would get. Graf won 6-0, 6-0. Official match time was 34 minutes, which charitably included two minutes of rain delay. The German allowed Zvereva just 13 points, three of them in that one early game.

As usual, the defining shot of the day was the one that earned Steffi her nickname, Fräulein Forehand. Graf hit 9 forehand winners in the compressed space of a mere 61 points. Another 11 forehands forced errors off the Zvereva racket. In the memorable words of Rex Bellamy, the challenger “was reduced to lolloping, lunging helplessness and public shame.”

Welcome to the club, Natasha.

The 1988 French Open final

1988 was Graf’s Golden Slam year. In the course of her 72 victories, she dealt out 29 bagels, plus 45 more sets by the score of 6-1. Her other three slam-final victims–Navratilova, Sabatini, and Chris Evert–each suffered one of those breadsticks on the sport’s biggest stages. Martina had won as many matches in a season, but even she hadn’t traipsed over the field so emphatically.

Top-20 player Helen Kelesi avoided meeting Graf in 1988, but she lost 6-1, 6-1 early the following year. “It was scary out there,” said Kelesi. “I was just trying to hit the ball back, and I couldn’t even do that.”

Susan Sloane, one of the pebbles in the German’s path at Roland Garros, was similarly flummoxed. “It’s no fun playing Steffi.” she said. “She has no weaknesses, none. Right now I’m playing the best I’ve ever played, and she beats me oh and one.”

The 1988 French Open final was the most lopsided major championship match of the modern era. For Graf, it barely stood out as a good day.

* * *

The forehand was the highlight-reel shot, the centerpiece of that unbreakable game. Yet Navratilova didn’t even consider it to be Graff’s premier strength. After losing the 1988 Wimbledon final, Martina said,

Steffi’s speed–her incredible spring–is her biggest weapon. She’s so quick off the mark. If she doesn’t get to the ball, she can’t nail that big forehand.

It was easy for fans to ignore her quickness because she ended points so rapidly. But opponents couldn’t miss it. She was impossible to beat from the baseline. Anything she could run down–in other words, just about everything–would come back with interest.

“Every time I hit what I think is a winner she hits it back harder,” said Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. That was after a 6-1, 6-0, 47-minute drubbing in 1990. On clay.

The only solution, aside from hoping for injury or waiting three years for a bad day, was to attack. Relentlessly. That worked–sort of–for Navratilova, who won 9 of 18 meetings. It was also the game plan of Lori McNeil, a younger serve-and-volleyer who scored multiple upsets against Graf, including in the 1994 Wimbledon first round.

Back in 1987, when Graf had yet to cement her dominance, she beat another net-rusher, Pam Shriver, in the US Open quarterfinals. The scoreline was a routine 6-4, 6-3, but Pam–who would always be a bit of a Steffi skeptic–came off the court with renewed confidence. “The puzzle is solved,” she proclaimed. Shriver gave some advice to McNeil, who would meet Graf in the semis.

The 1987 US Open semi-final

The strategy: Non-stop pressure, force her to hit endless passing shots, pull her wide on the forehand side so she can’t unleash the inside-out howitzer. Problem was, the only woman alive who could do that was Martina, and even she couldn’t do it all the time. Feverish and flu-ridden, Steffi beat McNeil in three.

Navratilova did manage to win the 1987 Flushing final, stopping the youngster for the second straight slam. It was the last match Graf lost all year. She wouldn’t fall short again at a major until 1989.

Her first tournament back in Europe that fall came at the Citizen Cup in Hamburg, where she lost barely three games per match as she glided through the draw. Her victim in the final, Isabel Cueto, had first seen Steffi play when she was eight years old. “My parents and I couldn’t believe it,” she told a reporter in 1989. “They knew I would need some more lessons.”

* * *

Marvelous as the footwork-and-a-forehand combination was, the skill that took Graf from impressive to imperious was her mind. In early 1985, she was a 15-year-old outside of the top 20, generally ranked second behind Sabatini as a super-prospect. But both Evert and long-time circuit insider Ted Tinling tossed in the caveat that Steffi was stronger between the ears.

A few years later, Chrissie would go one step further. The Evert-Navratilova rivalry had often been characterized as brains-versus-brawn, Chrissie’s steel will against Martina’s outlandish athleticism. “Steffi has both,” Evert said.

That was the real secret behind all those 6-0, 6-1 victories. She never lost focus, never let up. Even at 19, her standards went far beyond what it took to win every match and complete the game’s only Golden Slam.

“I want to reach absolute perfection,” she once said. “And I think I can reach it.”

It wasn’t easy, targeting such a level, day-in, day-out. Czechoslovakian Pavel Slozil, a former ATP tour player, often said that he worked harder as Steffi’s coach than he ever had in his playing days. Her mother, Heidi, implored her to smile more on court. Graf was too single-minded for that. “What do you want me to do, Mother,” she answered, “smile or win?”

The 1989 Washington final

Only occasionally did Graf recognize the outrageousness of what she was doing. Early in 1989 at the Virginia Slims of Washington, she won the first 20 points of the final against Zina Garrison. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure how to handle such a situation: Play it safe and go for the golden set, or keep swinging away? Her befuddlement let Zina back into the match, but Steffi was the only one who would’ve been disappointed by the eventual 6-1, 7-5 outcome.

At other moments, the pressure seemed to just disappear. Graf sometimes had to stifle a giggle fit on court, as at one tournament in Florida when she was surprised to hear a spectator cheer her on in German. She never abandoned her game face for long, though. It was tough to tell whether Steffi was feeling any nerves herself. But as she rushed from one point to the next, alternating forehand bombs with skidding backhand slices, the pressure on the other woman never went away.

* * *

For more than a decade, Graf’s fortitude would be tested. She was unusually injury prone, even clumsy, stuck rehabbing anything from a broken thumb to a bone splinter in her foot. She missed one Australian Open with rubella. It eventually became a running joke. “Every time I played Steffi Graf,” said Shriver, “there was always something wrong with her.”

Lindsay Davenport learned early on that if Graf was healthy enough to play, she was healthy enough to win–usually in about 45 minutes. “She always goes out and plays just fine,” Davenport said at the 1997 Australian. “I don’t want to know what’s bothering her now.”

At other junctures, though, everyone knew what was bothering her, and it did affect her play. In 1990, German tabloids exploded with the story of her father’s affair with a Playboy model. Steffi had always been shy, uncomfortable with the level of attention her sporting prowess brought her. Now, she felt like she was taking on multiple opponents at the same time: Challengers gunning for her on court, insatiable gossip rags off of it.

It’s always tough to know how much weight to assign to off-court troubles. For one thing, Graf didn’t exactly struggle in 1990: She won ten titles and lost only five matches. Her semi-final loss at Wimbledon to Garrison is easy to link to the scandal: Media scrutiny was never higher than it was at Wimbledon, and the result was a particularly surprising one. But the two losses after that came against an ever-stronger Sabatini. Gabi had always played Graf tougher than the head-to-head record revealed, and the Argentinian’s focus in those days was, quite simply, to figure out how to beat the world number one.

The 1991 Wimbledon final

The other two 1990 upsets came at the hands of the first younger player capable of pushing Steffi around. Monica Seles had two double-fisted strokes, each one nearly as fearsome as the German’s forehand. While she came to net even less than Graf did, she managed to implement a version of the Navratilova/Shriver/McNeil game plan from the baseline. Facing the rest of the field, Seles scored as many 40-minute drubbings as her elder did. Her all-out power was the first weapon that Steffi couldn’t reliably blunt.

Graf said it wasn’t just Seles who beat her in Berlin and for the French Open title in Paris: “I also lost the two finals against the German press.” Maybe so, but it would soon become clear that Monica could manage on her own.

* * *

The most entertaining thing about reviewing the careers of the all-time greats is how much their peaks contort our expectations. The way some people talk, the span from 1990 to 1992 were lost years for Steffi.

A three-year-long unfocused, injury-riddled disaster in which she–let me see here–won three majors, reached three more slam finals, picked up 22 other titles, and never fell below number two in the rankings. Seles so convincingly relegated her to also-ran status that Monica won… um, two of their five meetings between 1991 and 1993.

This is important, because Graf’s legacy–almost as much as Seles’s own–is tied up with the April 1993 attack that halted Monica’s career. Not only was the assailant an unhinged German fan, Steffi was the primary beneficiary of her rival’s absence. Graf won 10 of her 22 major titles between 1993 and 1996, a stretch in which a healthy Seles would’ve challenged for every one of them.

The Graf-Seles final at the 1991 Citizen Cup in Hamburg

We’ll never know, of course, how those years would have turned out. Seles might have improved and won a Grand Slam of her own; she might have swerved off course under the pressure of celebrity. My point is only that Graf, in a slump, held her own against the best player the early 1990s threw at her. Steffi didn’t lose more than six matches in a season between 1993 and 1997, so it’s hard to imagine her crumbling under more of Monica’s pressure.

“I’m playing such good tennis, and I would like to prove it,” she said in 1994. “If Monica were around, I’d have someone to prove it against.”

After winning the 1995 French Open, a tournament overshadowed in part by the news that Seles would soon return to the circuit, Steffi added: “The most fun you get is when you have tough matches and you’re pushed to your limits. She was one of the players who did that to me…. I’ve missed her.”

In Seles’s absence, Arantxa became the primary challenger. Graf and Sánchez Vicario contested six major finals between 1994 and 1996. Two of them–both Graf victories–stand out among the best matches of the Open era.

Steffi played the 1995 Wimbledon final on anti-inflammatories to manage the pain of a bone spur in her back. She nearly withdrew from the tournament a few days before the fortnight began, and she did pull out of the doubles. Arantxa took the first set, then Graf charged back with a 6-1 second and an early break in the third. But the Spaniard turned it into a battle of attrition, decided only after Graf won a 32-point, 20-minute game to break for 6-5. Despite a list of injuries longer than her travel itinerary, she secured her sixth Wimbledon title and improved to 32-0 on the season.

The pivotal game of the 1995 Wimbledon final

In 1996, the two women went even longer, crossing the three-hour mark in the French Open final. This time Arantxa made the comeback, recovering from a 4-1 deficit in the second-set tiebreak and forcing one error after another to reach a third set. Toe to toe with the best retriever in the game on a surface built for grinding, Graf proved that her stamina–though rarely tested–was another world-class asset. Steffi pulled out the match, 10-8 in the third.

* * *

The Roland Garros title was her 19th major championship, then good for the Open era record. But Graf was never one to dwell on her place in history. “The match overwhelmed the record,” she said.

That one line, more than anything else, captures what Fräulein Forehand brought to the court. She aimed for perfection on every point, and frighteningly often, she reached it. For it all to matter, she needed a foil whose game could approach the same heights.

Sabatini had her moments. Sánchez Vicario always threatened a grueling afternoon. Peak Seles was the problem Graf never had enough chances to solve, the one who might have forced Steffi to raise her game to an even more staggering level.

In Graf’s mind, her one true equal was Navratilova. As the German rose through the ranks, Martina and Chrissie were still one and two, and Steffi’s first three major finals–and another three within two years–pitted her against the aggressive left-hander.

The 1994 Tokyo final, the last meeting between Graf and Navratilova

Navratilova called Graf “the best all-around player of all-time, regardless of the surface.” Steffi returned the compliment in 1999: “[Martina] is the uncontested number one. She has left a mark on the sport like no one else.”

At Wimbledon in 1993, Steffi expected to meet Navratilova in the final, but the veteran was ousted by Jana Novotná in the semis. “I’m disappointed she’s not there,” she said. After taking advantage of Novotná’s collapse for the title, Graf wanted to keep playing. She sent a note to Martina asking for a private match behind closed doors. My kingdom for a mobile phone: Navratilova was out golfing.

Graf was still thinking about it a year later. Journalist Sally Jenkins asked for her idea of a perfect tennis match. Wimbledon, Centre Court, Navratilova, she said. No fans. They wouldn’t even keep score: “It is just for us.”

“I’d do it in a second,” Martina replied. “We’d play the tennis of our lives.”