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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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They played the French Open on clay. It was a draw. In the women's championship match, Steffi Graf won. In the men's, the clay won.

Of course, it wasn't only the clay. The Paris weather, rude and capricious, even for the most indomitable of lovers and tennis players alike, also did its part. For all the wondrous things the City of Light may possess, the only thing it has going for it in the spring is imaginative songwriters.

At least one lyricist was right when he thanked heaven for little girls. Also, thank heaven for anything distaff carrying a tennis racket in Paris. It used to be said that there was no more painful or-deal in sport than watching women play tennis on clay. But now we really know why the French Open is played over the Marquis de Sade's birthday. A local boy—he would have been 247 last week—never would he have delighted in more exquisite torture than that inflicted upon hapless spectators forced to watch today's crop of male players hitting endless, looping ground strokes throughout best-of-five-set matches on red clay.

Ivan Lendl outlasted the field, whipping Sweden's Mats Wilander—who had been celebrated as the game's best clay-court player—in Sunday's final. So Lendl is, more than ever, indisputably No. 1 in the world. Unfortunately for Lendl, who is officially on his way to becoming an American citizen, if men's tennis doesn't get any more entertaining and challenging than it was in Paris, then very soon very few will care who is No. 1.

Graf's future is more assured, for Paris brought her to the top while still a week shy of her eighteenth birthday. To be sure, Martina Navratilova is back on track, will be a huge favorite at Wimbledon and is still No. 1 on that fool computer. But Graf beat the great Navratilova in a magnificent 6-4, 4-6, 8-6 final on Saturday, and she has now won seven tournaments in a row and 39 straight matches.

Afterward, Martina pleaded with the press, "Don't try and dethrone me." But in March, when Graf defeated her at the Lipton Players Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., Navratilova said, "Today she was the best player in the world, and she will be until I play her again." Navratilova has always been as good as her word.

Not only does Graf figure to improve, but at Roland Garros she also showed valor to match her talent. In the semifinal, against her contemporary, Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, and again in the final, Graf was down 5-3 in the third set. "I was just out there enjoying myself," she said after the Sabatini match. In the back of the room, Peter Graf, her father and tutor, had to bow his head and smirk. Enjoy? Steffi is a loner, intense, driven to succeed. As soon as one point is done, she drums herself, rat-a-tat-tat, into place for the next one: Let's go, let's play—nothing like it since Little Mo Connolly. But like her teenage countryman Boris Becker, she is no bloodless Teutonic cliché. "Steffi's got a good heart," says Navratilova. "She's a good kid."

Madame Evert—that is what the French called the defending champion, combining her maiden name with her married title—evidently has some sort of subconscious block against acknowledging the rise of the new champion and the other brilliant, young contender. Evert would invariably refer to each of them in the plural, as if hundreds of such teenage baseline products were being dumped on the market for her inspection. "The Sabatinis and the Grafs are eager," she would say. Or: "I watched the Sabatinis and the Grafs this week, and I rarely do that."

Once, to complicate things even more, Madame Evert referred to the Sabatinis, the Grafs and the Maleevas. Of course, there really are two tennis-playing Maleevas, Manuela, 20, and her sister Katerina, 18.

In any event, the Everts and the Navratilovas fared rather differently in Paris. Evert, lately adorning Wheaties boxes, swept in with her handsome new escort, Andy Mill, a former Olympic skier from Aspen, Colo., and took considerably more time primping for press conferences than she did playing the bloody matches.

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