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Frank Deford
June 15, 1987
The women took center stage at the French Open as once again Steffi Graf beat Martina Navratilova
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June 15, 1987

Score One More For Steffi

The women took center stage at the French Open as once again Steffi Graf beat Martina Navratilova

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Then, in the Old People's Conference Championship, against Navratilova in the semifinals, she botched it all. Evert played abysmally, holding serve only on pain of match point and aimlessly hitting so many balls long that one could only recall General Andrew Jackson's advice to his troops at the Battle of New Orleans: "Boys, elevate them guns a little lower." Madame Evert departed for England, where she and Mill are scheduled to meet the London tabloids in a best-of-two-week match on the dirt.

Navratilova arrived in France on the defensive. She hadn't won a tournament all year, during which time she was forced to contend with a persistent foot injury, a racket in which she had seemingly lost confidence and the lack of a steady coach. She and Mike Estep, her coach for three years, agreed to a parting of the ways last January, before the Australian Open; Virginia Wade didn't cut the mustard, and Rod Laver sent his regrets.

Then, midway through the tournament, Dr. Renee Richards, the Park Avenue ophthalmologist, agreed to give up some time from her practice and take the rudder during Grand Slam events. Four years ago at the French Open, Richards had been summarily banished from Team Navratilova when Martina was upset by Kathleen Horvath. "Martina called me out of some need," the doctor said calmly, even as everywhere the word "panic" was being applied to the champion.

Soon enough the sails were trimmed, strategy meetings were called and Evert was destroyed. Navratilova even forsook the Yonex racket she is paid to endorse in favor of a Dunlop model that she not so subtly camouflaged with black paint. Navratilova would have thrown back the Graf challenge, except for a few egregious mistakes. Still, with her appearance in last week's championship match, Martina has now reached the final in 9 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments (and 15 of her last 16), a record that no other woman has approached.

The final was of high quality, too, despite the mischievous winds that penalized Navratilova's net game far more than they did Graf's, who relies on pounding her awesome forehand from the baseline. Indeed, Martina could have broken serve for 7-6 in the final set, but just as she was poised to put away an easy backhand volley at 30-40, a gust blew red dust from the court into her eyes, and she rapped the ball into the tape.

As the match progressed (the players traded 6-4 sets) a disproportionate part of the action moved to one sliver of the court as Navratilova, forcing the action, hit more and more to Graf's weaker stroke, her backhand. To compensate, Graf would often try to run around the backhand, so that in time she came to resemble a football wideout, flanked left. Her ability to stab a few backhands past Martina's backhand volley, down that thin red sliver, saved the match for Graf in the late going.

Alas, a double fault sealed Martina's doom. Trailing 7-6, ad-out in the final set, she hit her second serve long, boldly going deep as Graf ran out wide to attempt a strong forehand return. Navratilova preferred to go down swinging rather than let Graf have at her with her monster forehand.

The losing semifinalists are truly to be lamented. Poor Sabatini, poor butterfly. How much can a 17-year-old's heart take before it breaks?

In a semifinal as artful and close as the final (6-4, 4-6, 7-5), Sabatini never played better, her stamina was never stronger, and those Joan Crawford shoulders never sagged. "She was closer than ever before," Graf said. But again Sabatini lost. Seven times she and Graf have played, six times they have gone three sets, each time Graf has won.

They are close in so many ways: doubles partners, born less than a year apart, about the same size, baseliners—Graf with her forehand, Sabatini with her morning-glory, down-the-line backhand. And, as if by magic, they arrived from different corners of the globe with the old custom of holding both service balls. So much alike. Yet only one wins. "I think we're going to be like Martina and Chris," Gaby said proudly one day in Paris. Only sadly, it seems. Affirmed and Alydar are their models.

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