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ACE of HEARTS
S.L. Price
September 18, 1995
For Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras, the U.S. Open was never so sweet
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September 18, 1995

Ace Of Hearts

For Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras, the U.S. Open was never so sweet

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You never heard so many New Yorkers so quiet. Money and power and sweet connections brought them all here, 19,883 bodies stuffed into the seats of Louis Armstrong Stadium, and for the first time in 13 typically noisy days at the U.S. Open there is absolute stillness in the air. No one speaks for five seconds, six, and then it becomes impossible to sustain: A lone girl's voice trills down to the tennis court:

"Steffi!" And Steffi Graf, lean and troubled and in a place no one, most of all herself, thought she would be, throws the ball high. Her serve tags the net cord and lands deep. A gasp ripples through the place, relief piled upon tension piled upon disbelief. It is just too intense, all of it—Monica Seles and her astonishing comeback, Graf and her astounding life, this Open that had, finally, presented the drama that tennis often promises and rarely delivers.

Double match point for Graf. She serves a second time, and Seles crushes the ball, simply steps in and drives it crosscourt with that lethal two-handed backhand—and in that moment the past and future merge, 2½ years fade, and both the crowd and the women's game roar back to life. Could it have been more perfect? Here it was, the dead center of the sport's biggest Saturday ever, featuring six players with a combined 43 Grand Slam titles among them, six players who had all known the rarefied perch of No. 1. And yet, even with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, and Andre Agassi and Boris Becker threatening to crush the women's final between their big-name semifinals and their men's-game arrogance, it was Graf and Seles who carried this Open, who held off the memories of the men who hurt them, who transformed a painful year into a future rich with promise.

It is match point again, and Graf serves, and so quickly it is over: Seles dumps a forehand low, making it 7-6, 0-6, 6-4 for Graf, and Seles rushes the net, waiting there with open arms. The two women, connected for so long by the blade of a lunatic's knife, hug and then kiss each other's cheeks. It is just short of unreal. For until this moment, the guilt of this had weighed on Graf: Günther Parche stabbed Seles in Hamburg in April 1993 because he was a Graf fan. To meet Seles in the final—to know that she had blasted through the first 11 matches of her comeback without losing even a set—was pure relief. "Absolutely," Graf says. "And it's even more important to see her play that well and obviously enjoy herself and be...so at peace with herself. It's so great to see that."

Yes, it was in one sense, as Stefan Edberg put it, a "Seles Open." And, with mighty Monica back and Sampras blasting Agassi away 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 in the men's final, it was also the Circus Maximus for one 800-pound gorilla of a sneaker company, whose poster children and slogans were ubiquitous. "It's Nike's world; we're just living in it," says Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson, who like Seles, Sampras and Agassi is a Nike Guy. But it was the Adidas-sponsored Graf's unexpected endurance that made this Open a precious thing. Graf has now won 18 major titles, an Olympic gold medal and the sport's last Grand Slam. None of that meant more to her than last Saturday. "This is the biggest win I have ever achieved," Graf says. "There is nothing that even comes close to this one."

Why? Because even as Steffi wept and smiled oncourt, even as the flashbulbs flickered over her face and her trophy, her father—and manager—Peter sat in a jail cell in Mannheim, suspected of failing to pay German income taxes on a reported $1.5 million of his daughter's earnings—a figure that could rise to $7 million. According to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Peter's arrest in August was the result of evidence in a suit brought against Peter by a tournament in Essen, Germany, run by manager-promoter Ion Tiriac. Peter, long known for his cash-only demands for Steffi's appearances, has not been allowed to speak to his daughter since his incarceration. She has not been implicated, but German authorities presumably do not want the two to coordinate their stories.

At the time of Peter's arrest, Steffi was in the U.S. The German press went into a frenzy, staking out her apartment in New York, following her with a shopping cart as she picked up groceries in Boca Raton, Fla. She decided to stay in the U.S. and play the Open, and before it began, she sent Peter—the man who had drilled her into a championship talent, and the man, too, who had mortified her with a much-publicized dalliance with a model during Wimbledon in 1990—a copy of the drawsheet. Last Thursday, two days after she had avenged her one loss of the year, to Amanda Coetzer, with a three-set win, Steffi sat near her mother, Heidi, and listened while her parents talked. She wasn't allowed to say a word. "Ahh," Steffi said later, "but I did hear him." Her parents talked on the speakerphone. Steffi, silent, listened to her father's voice crackle across the ocean.

Throughout her Open, through her wins over Nathalie Tauziat and rising star Chanda Rubin and surprising Amy Frazier and a resurgent Gabriela Sabatini, Graf battled the chronic bone spur in her back, and a new bone spur that had sprouted in her left foot. Worse, she is the 26-year-old hub of a $125 million empire, which puts her at the center of this case involving her father. So even as Seles coasted through her first six Open matches without losing a set, and a collision between the two loomed closer with each passing match, Graf kept getting bombarded with news and gossip and worries about the case. "Some people now think they can take advantage of the situation and put pressure on you about different things," Graf says.

Steffi plans to return to Germany soon—where she may face interrogation—to rein in the operation Peter let run afoul of the law. She says she has no regrets about leaving her money matters to her father; how else could she concentrate on tennis? "But I do have to look after more things now," she says. Take a little more control? "A lot more control," she says. "And basically I don't know how."

After her first six wins at the Open, Graf spoke of how shocked she was by her performance. Yes, she had won the 1995 French Open with little preparation and Wimbledon with her back giving her fits, but she fully believed her concentration would buckle under the strain in New York. Yet, in the U.S. Open's oddest twist of all, it was Graf—not the iron-willed Seles—who proved mentally stronger. Serving at set point in the first-set tiebreak, Seles fired what she thought was an ace and began running toward her chair when the sail was called wide. Seles couldn't believe the call—replays seemed to show it was wide—and she could not get over it. Graf blasted a forehand to win the point, and then Seles looped two forehands long. "Two-and-a-half years ago, if I lave that call, I would say, 'O.K., Monica, it's gone,' " Seles said after the match. "This year, it was bugging me through the whole match. That's what I have to get back."

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