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Serves and Follies

The U.S. Open was just so many crybabies and no-names until Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf dispatched the pretenders


By Alexander Wolff

Issue date: September 20, 1993

Sports Illustrated Flashback"C'mawwwwwwwwn, Whatsisname!"
—A U.S. Open spectator, during Sunday's men's final between Cedric Pioline and Pete Sampras

The U.S. Open got it at least half right. Open it was -- so much so that seven of the 16 men's seeds were gone by the third round. But U.S. players could hardly be found, especially on the women's side, where, for the first time in the 107-year history of the U.S. Nationals, none reached the quarterfinals. By the time the top players had ceased their infantile whining about the Flushing Meadow food ("Poison," said Andrei Medvedev, a quarterfinal loser), practice courts ("Potholes," said Jim Courier, who went down in the round of 16) and scheduling ("Very poor concerning Becker," said Boris Becker, whose fourth- round defeat eliminated his first, second and third persons), Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf stood alone, as much for the attitudes they maintained as for the tennis they played.

"New York is not as bad a place as people think," said Graf, who might have been speaking for Sampras.

"I just play my tennis and sign my autographs and do what I have to do," said Sampras, who might have been speaking for Graf.

Those comments could lead you to believe that the Open was dull. It wasn't. Ever since April, when an unemployed German lathe operator sidelined Monica Seles indefinitely by stabbing her during a changeover at a tournament in Hamburg, every one of Graf's victories has been fit for a frame of someone else's choosing. That's a shame. Since that fateful event Graf has won six straight tournaments, 36 matches in a row. If not for a narrow loss to Seles in the final of the Australian Open in January, she would own her second Grand Slam. And she has lorded over the women's game while shouldering alone the pressure she once shared with Seles at the top.

The stabbing resurfaced as an issue on the eve of the U.S. Open when Seles showed up unexpectedly for activities honoring the late Arthur Ashe. She was disappointed, Seles told the press the next day, that she hadn't heard from Graf during her convalescence. The remark didn't sit well with Graf, who had visited Seles in the hospital in Hamburg and has tried several times to get in touch with her in Vail, Colo., where Seles is being treated. Even Seles's own people at International Management Group sometimes have a hard time keeping in touch with their client, who behaves like Greta Garbo one day and Madonna the next.

"I don't want to make it sound bad, but I have been trying," says Graf, who graciously mentioned Seles after the final. "It's just impossible to reach her. I know other people have tried."

The two places Graf has long called home, the family estate in Bruhl, Germany, and Boca Raton, Fla., where she keeps a house next door to her parents, symbolize the intertwined institutions of her 24 years -- family and tennis. That's why she's so excited about her new, $900,000 New York penthouse triplex in a converted police headquarters on the fringe of Manhattan's SoHo district. "To have a place of my own, to be able to decorate it myself, it's something I've always wished for," says Graf, who spent the Open's first week shopping for curtains. "And the neighborhood is not at all like the rest of New York. There are little galleries and shops and restaurants. It's almost its own small city."

Graf patrolled the acrylic greenswards of Flushing Meadow with a distinctly New York countenance. She got right to her points. She served with alacrity, proceeded unsmilingly, avoided eye contact. In her 4-6, 6-1, 6-0 semifinal defeat of Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere and her 6-3, 6-3 boxing of Helena Sukova in Saturday's final, she wore a black-and-white ensemble, coordinated down to the white headband and black bow. It was all very downtown. Curtains for the living room; curtains for everyone else.

Graf has finally reached the point where the man in her life is someone other than her stern father, Peter. Michael Bartels, 25, is a German Formula 3000 race-car driver, and he and Steffi have been extraordinarily discreet in their courtship. One of their few public lapses took place at a tournament in San Diego in early August, when they promenaded around the grounds hand in hand. In Toronto at the Canadian Open a month ago, after a fan yelled out, "I love you, Steffi!" as Graf accepted the champion's trophy, she responded, "I'm taken."

Her confidence is palpable. "She's more independent, and it shows in her tennis," says Heinz Gunthardt, her coach, who has helped Graf improve the topspin backhand passing shot that served her so well when the 6 ft. 2 in. Sukova rushed the net. After the tabloid roasting that Graf's father endured during a paternity imbroglio, after her dethroning as No. 1 by Seles, after the emotional turmoil of Hamburg (where Seles's assailant said he acted so Graf might return to No. 1), it is a welcome sight: a female tennis adolescent getting through to adulthood in more or less straight sets.

For better or worse, Graf's adoptive home made an impression on the men as well. "They drive fast, and no accidents!" said Medvedev, the Ukraine-based ethnic Russian who just turned 19. "I have not seen one accident in New York, and I was close 100 times."

Medvedev must have been talking about Manhattan, for accidents were commonplace in Queens, and he was one of the victims, losing to Ol' Whatsisname, Pioline of France. Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek all lost on the grandstand court, which is widely considered slower than the stadium court and thus provided those big servers with an excuse of sorts. Becker lost to journeyman Magnus Larsson of Sweden. And Courier also fell to Pioline, who has never won a pro tournament and whose coach, a management consultant named Henri Dumont, had arranged to take off only the first week and had to be hustled back on the Concorde for the final. "I just play pwaant by pwaant," Pioline said after dispatching Courier 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4. Ah, the indignity: Courier, the tour's original Francophile, hunted down and cuffed by Inspector Clouseau.

Courier might have fared better taking his practice-court gripes to Senator Pothole himself, New York's own Alfonse D'Amato, who was part of the usual celebrity tsunami at the National Tennis Center. (Also espied: Jack, Sophia, Wilt, Alec, Kirk and Tom 'n' Nic.) It's not clear whether Andre Agassi's cameo -- 19-year-old Thomas Enqvist of Sweden took him out in the first round -- made him a participant or a celeb. But we know that if you are what you eat, Agassi is a doughnut, all glaze with nothing at the center. After losing, Agassi questioned the value of thinking through each point, something his new coach, Pancho Segura, desperately wants him to do. "He has so many outside distractions," said Sampras of Agassi. "Everywhere he goes he's mobbed. Maybe he causes that kind of aura. Maybe he likes it, I don't know."

From his appraisal of Agassi, one can tell what Sampras believes doesn't win Grand Slam titles. The Sampras who prevailed at Flushing Meadow three years ago was an innocent plunked down on a show court, a gangly kid with a hot serve who played in a daze over two weeks and wound up winning American tennis's greatest prize. He wasn't prepared for what followed. The sudden recognition he received clashed with his introverted nature. A series of lucrative exhibitions wore him out. Sergio Tacchini, the Italian sportswear firm, paid him $2 million a year to wear its clothes and shoes -- but the shoes gave him shinsplints and had to be redesigned.

Enter Tim Gullikson, the former lunch-bucket pro who became Sampras's coach in January 1992. The following season they toured European clay-court tournaments to improve Sampras's forehand and teach him the very quality that Agassi resists: the patience to build a point through a rally. Sampras's forehand became more reliable without adding looping strokes and excessive topspin. It's a hard-breaking slider capable of abruptly ending a rally, but he won't unleash it prematurely. "If it takes five hours to win," Sampras says, "it takes five hours to win."

Gullikson didn't touch the serve, which carried Sampras to the Wimbledon championship in July and which he failed to hold only seven times in seven matches at this Open. Alexander Volkov, the Russian whom Sampras took out 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals, didn't have one break point. Sampras sucked most of the soul out of Pioline, and much of the suspense out of Sunday's final, by breaking him in the first game of each set and then cruising 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. "I was a Packer fan when they used to be great," says Gullikson, who's 42 and grew up in Wisconsin. "Pete's got a game like that, the kind everybody else has got to adjust to. Like the old Green Bay power sweep, you know it's coming. You just have to stop it."

Sampras refused to apologize either for the whatsisnames in his draw or for his noncontroversial manner. He, too, could have bitched about the food, having suffered from diarrhea before his loss in the final to Edberg a year ago. Instead, Sampras holed up in a hotel on Long Island, sending out for sandwiches from a deli. "I'm not very controversial, and controversy definitely sells tickets and causes ratings to go up," he says. "But I'm not going to change my style."

It is not merely his comportment that wins Sampras the admiration of the sport's whiskered champions, men like Segura, Tony Trabert and Fred Perry. It is the way he plays the game. He's a product of technique more than technology. He has used the same model of racket since he was 16. He follows his serve into the net, and he hits his backhand with one hand and his forehand with a classic Eastern grip. Even the Sampras habit of raising his arms, palms out, in acknowledgment of the crowd after he wins is a throwback, classically Greek in its way, perhaps an atavistic gesture from a guy with a dad named Soterios. It's not hard to imagine the laurel wreath on his head.

In many ways this Open of machines -- the electronic TEL system that proved not ready to call the lines; the city pols who tentatively okayed a deal that would double the size of the National Tennis Center and accommodate a new, 23,500-seat stadium court by 1996; the usual planes and blimps and subway cars with their respective grates and hums and screeches -- will be remembered for highlighting two very well-oiled and fine-tuned players. Yet while Sampras and Graf appear to be machines on the court, they are, in their own ways, blossoming into human beings off it. At this tournament that so celebrates euphemism, where the refreshment stands bill sandwiches as "breads and fillings," let's call this year's champions simply. Let's call them grown-up people.

Issue date: September 20, 1993


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