Work in Sports
The Grand Finale
Steffi Graf slammed her way into tennis history by winning the U.S. Open for her fourth major championship of the year
By Curry Kirkpatrick
Long after Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander have taken their unbearably tedious Connecticut state championship rivalry back to Greenwich, where it belongs; after Jimmy Connors has run out of energy and Andre Agassi out of peroxide; and after the men and women of tennis have buried the sport in their alphabet political wars, 19-year-old Steffi Graf may still be winning Grand Slams. By then maybe somebody will care.
Oh, the folks who run the U.S. Open pulled out all the stops to try to get us excited. In celebration of Graf's achievement, they hauled out the flags of the four nations -- Australia, France, England and the U.S. -- in which she won her Slam titles, as well as a couple of other dynasty types, Don Budge and Linda Evans. Yet during and following Graf's 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Gabriela Sabatini in Saturday's final, which elevated Graf to a historical plateau that only four other players have reached -- Budge (in 1938), Maureen Connolly (1953), Rod Laver (1962 and '69) and Margaret Court (1970) also won tennis's four major championships in the same calendar year -- you could cut the ennui at Flushing Meadow with a hacksaw.
Was it because Martina Navratilova was so busy complaining during the fortnight that her six consecutive Grand Slam victories in 1983 and '84 should count as a Slam, even though they didn't meet the calendar requirements, that she lost in the quarterfinals to Zina Garrison? ("The last glimmer of twilight -- I'm afraid Madame M has lost her nerve," said Martina's friend and former couturier, Ted Tinling, after Garrison's 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 upset.) Was it because a seriously ill Chris Evert had to default her semifinal against Graf after coming down with gastroenteritis? Or was it because the rest of the women's field was in the grip of a far more serious disease known as Graf Infection?
"Ninety-eight percent of the girls are scared to death to play her," said Patty Fendick, the tart-tongued Stanford psychology graduate who took six games from Graf in the fourth round. "I got my butt kicked, but at least I kept coming in and volleying."
Perhaps Graf herself -- so stern, so relentless, so impassive (just another day at the guillotine), so downright terrific -- is to blame. Her emotions seem to run the gamut from A to B: from apathy to boredom. Surely she knew what she was accomplishing. Certainly she realized her place in history. "To achieve this at such an early age would be great," said Graf earlier in the tournament.
But after she had done so, she was asked if this was the greatest day of her life. "It's hard to say," said Graf. "It needs some time. The next couple of days will be good." Then she was gone, flying home to Bruhl, West Germany, almost before night had fallen on an achievement that even the normally phlegmatic Lendl called "amazing, unbelievable. I don't care if it was against old ladies or everybody was sick."
The American crowd may have been hesitant to give Graf her due simply because she didn't have to face either Evert or Navratilova in the tournament. However, the only player to beat Graf all year had been her doubles partner, Sabatini, who defeated her twice in the spring. So Sabatini might have been the biggest hurdle anyway.
In the second set on Saturday, Sabatini found the range with her high- bouncing topspin, and Graf actually missed a few forehands. When Sabatini grabbed the set and volleyed a winner for the first point of the third set, it looked as if Graf had a match on her hands. Alas, Sabatini, whose shoulders are approaching Bosworthian dimensions, doesn't share the stamina of the Boz. She all but collapsed from exhaustion, losing eight straight points and 15 of the next 17 before Graf let her up for air.
"Steffi's mentality was perfect," said Sabatini. But Graf's superior conditioning was what won this day. Evert in the Australian Open final, Natalia Zvereva at the French, Navratilova at Wimbledon, and now Sabatini at Flushing Meadow: They all got a chance at Graf. So let there be no complaints about this year's biggest winner in sports.
Meanwhile, Steffi's father, Peter, is not winning a lot of friends for the family. The Svengalian nature of his control over his daughter is well documented. After a Milan newspaper referred to Steffi as "the one with the grande naso ((big nose))," Peter pulled her out of this year's Italian Open. He allowed her to grace the Wimbledon champions' dinner only because she had to stick around to play a rain-delayed doubles final. Then, at the U.S. Open, he refused to let her attend the annual dinner of the Women's International Tennis Association (WITA) -- at which she was being honored as Player of the Year -- until he was guaranteed that she could be in bed by 9 p.m. sharp. That meant providing the Grafs with a room at the Plaza Hotel, where the dinner was held, and rearranging the awards ceremony. "The WITA is intimidated by Peter," said Pam Shriver, the No. 4 seed at the Open.
On Labor Day the WITA labored, indeed, with a threat from Peter to pull Steffi off the tour because the Grafs don't like the association's proposed new ranking system, under which the top players could lose points when playing small tournaments. Peter claimed that the WITA had "lied" to him and that the new system would unfairly penalize his daughter alone. He threatened to form a separate women's circuit. Graf's agent, Phil DePicciotto, was asked whether his client was aware of all this. "Steffi is one of the most aware people I've ever met," said DePicciotto. "This is the essence of Steffi . . . a tremendous feeling of justice. She's an active supporter of the World Wildlife Fund."
Speaking of which, when Shriver heard about the new Graf tour, she said, "I'd like to see the pigeons they get to play on that one."
Not to be outdone in the field of chaos, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the men's players' union, announced that it, too, would establish an alternative circuit in 1990. The players are disgusted with the way the Men's Tennis Council, which is the closest thing the men's game has to a governing body, dictates to them. The players want to run the game in the same way their brethren on the PGA Tour run golf -- with fewer tournaments that would have more name players in them. Such radicalism -- Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's former doubles partner, is the union's executive director -- seemed so dangerous that the U.S. Tennis Association, with its finely honed sense of p.r., barred an ATP press conference from the tournament grounds, forcing the association to hold its gathering in the parking lot. As a result, the press conference received more attention than it otherwise would have. Wilander, who had struggled along hand-to-mouth with only $605,000 in winnings this year, spoke in behalf of the serfs about the "hardships" of the tour.
The first concern of the inmates after they take over the asylum should be what to do about AA, which is not an old organization but the game's new phenom. Agassi, 18, the Great Denim Hope of American tennis, came to Flushing Meadow on an 18-match winning streak and with six tournament victories on the year. Quickie portraits had been rushed into print: son of an Iranian immigrant who is a showroom captain at the Bally's-Las Vegas Hotel Casino, reads the Bible, listens to James Taylor, sleeps 12 hours a day, brother-in- law of Pancho Gonzales. Old Panch, in possibly the most ridiculous quote in sports history, told USA Today, "When I first saw Andre at two or three, I didn't think he was going to be any good."
All pretournament pronouncements aside, Agassi hadn't beaten a Top 10 player yet this year. And there were continuing clubhouse murmurs about contradictions between Agassi's "born-again" image and his crowd-pleasing antics. John McEnroe -- you may recall the name -- addressed the quandary: "The stuff he pulls on the court makes opponents think they're being made fun of. Players like to get stabbed in the back more than in front. I was more straightforward. His whole act will be tough to keep going. It's easier being a jerk."
Agassi replied, "John doesn't understand, it's not an effort for me to keep this stuff up. It's not a facade. I like the vibes I get from people. Until I get different vibes, I don't think I'll stop."
So Agassi kept smacking tennis balls into the upper deck and throwing his towels, shirts and trademark denim shorts to the fans. He kept smirking and posturing. He kept nailing that quick-wristed dynamite forehand. And he kept catching on. Why, even such graybeards as Sherwood Stewart and Marty Riessen played the senior doubles in denim shorts. Tom Gullikson won the senior singles title in them. Navratilova turned out in all-denim one day too.
In the fourth round Agassi defeated California's Michael Chang, 16, who had credited "our lord Jesus Christ" for enabling him to maintain his composure during a rain delay in his previous match. "In the juniors Andre had a bad attitude," Chang said after losing to Agassi. "This is a whole new guy. Studying the Bible, learning about the Lord, stuff like that, has really calmed him down." Nick Bollettieri, Agassi's coach, revealed that the two youngsters had attended Bible class together this summer in the Vermont woods. "It was wonderful," Bollettieri said.
In the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, Agassi beat the 36-year-old Connors 6-2, 7-6, 6-1 and did something previously believed to be impossible: He infuriated both McEnroe and Connors in the same evening. Early in the third set, Agassi mimicked McEnroe's rocking-anteater service motion and then ! grinned smack at Mac, who was sitting in a courtside box with his wife, Tatum. She doubled over laughing -- it was funny -- but the man of the house just glared.
Following the match, Agassi told the press how he had predicted to a friend he would beat Connors "three, three and three, but I didn't know Jimmy would have that much in him."
"That was a bad mistake," replied Connors. "I'll remember that. I'll play him again. Hell, I've followed guys to the end of the earth." Then Jimbo softened: "Now I don't think I'll follow him. I'm not begging for respect. It's a war zone out there. I enjoy playing guys who could be my children. Maybe he's one of them. I spent a lot of time in Vegas."
In the semis Agassi met his own worst nightmare, Lendl, who can hit a forehand just as hard as Agassi can and who brooks no wiseass behavior. After Agassi jokingly leaned on Lendl's shoulder during the prematch photo opportunity, tapped a ball at a fan in the first game and emitted a couple of martial-arts howls while blasting shots, Lendl had had enough. He demanded the umpire warn Agassi to contain his gasps, grunts and growls. "When Agassi goes for a big shot, his grunt is much harder, like he thinks it's a winner," said Lendl later. "If you have a play on the ball, it throws off your timing. Connors's grunting is different; it's always the same." Lendl's protest was denied.
Agassi said he thought Lendl was "out of line" and "ridiculous" for making his noises an issue. "That tells you something about the guy," he said.
Agassi played a spectacular 10th game, which he won on a backhand drop shot to win the first set 6-4. After that, however, he wasn't the same player. Over the next three sets, which Lendl won 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, Agassi could make few inroads against the older man's serve or power. Though he said he had trouble serving against the wind, Agassi -- Little Boy Blue Denim when behind -- appeared to be gearing up for a rejuvenation later in the match. He had done that all summer, but he couldn't recover against the resourceful Lendl. "He was giving up, hitting shots he knew weren't going in," said Lendl afterward. "I don't understand that."
Call it youth. Call it cool. One could sense Agassi's practically announcing, "I'm too baaad to be good." But his elders should take advantage while they can, before Agassi discovers the weight room. For all his contrivance and impudence, this rattail rascal brings to tennis the kind of freaky freshness and exotic fun that, as Lendl and Wilander proved again in their final, is precisely what the game at the highest level is starving for.
But you've got to give Lendl some credit. As he attempted to become the first man to win four consecutive U.S. championships since Bill Tilden won six in a row in the 1920s, he kept coming from behind in the gloaming on Sunday. He was down 4-1 in the second set and was down a service break in both the fourth and fifth sets before he succumbed 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. Raise even louder cheers to the steadier, and on this day surprising, Wilander, who whipped his nemesis after six straight defeats. "Nobody beats me seven in a row," Wilander joked. By winning his third major title of 1988, he gave Sweden a male Grand Slam of sorts. Wilander, who like Lendl lives in Greenwich, also won the Australian and French opens, while his countryman Stefan Edberg won Wimbledon. For Lendl, '88 is the first year he has failed to win a major championship since '83.
But even as Wilander was taking over the No. 1 spot on the computer from Lendl, who fell three weeks short of Connors's record of 159 weeks on top, Flushing Meadow was emptying fast. At least a fourth of the fans in the sold- out 20,000-seat stadium had exited by the start of the fifth set. By the end of the 51st game, after Lendl had fought off a match point, wasted two break points and netted a backhand return to finally surrender the title, four hours and 55 minutes had ticked away, making this the longest final ever in the U.S. nationals. It surpassed by eight minutes the record these same two men set last year, when they combined to make the America's Cup seem enthralling, not to mention short. By comparison, Graf needed on
ly four hours and 57 minutes to win all four of her Slam finals. That Lendl and Wilander are both essentially baseliners is not the only reason that their matches are tours de tedium. Lendl's dour mien is enough to darken the sun, of course, but even Wilander, for all his off-court humor and popularity, comes up a zero in on-court charisma and excitement. The new champ is such a nice guy he would never think of contributing a little zest to the proceedings by revealing his dislike for Lendl, who once embarrassed him with a 6-0, 6-0 rout in an exhibition in Spain, in which Wilander had to play with cheap rackets bought in a local store. He has never forgiven Lendl for that, and he at last got his revenge. "This beats most of my dreams," he said.
After which the U.S. Open could finally wake up and go home.
Issue date: September 19, 1988