Mop-topped and 23, McNeil is one of the few black players to make a mark on the tennis tour. Nonetheless, she has often gone unnoticed because her buddy since childhood, Zina Garrison, the seventh seed in the Open, has always been the 1 to McNeil's 1A in the Houston black entry. To win the right to dash Evert upon the rocks McNeil had to beat Garrison in the third-set tiebreaker of a wonderful match that was shunted off to a back court. These black stars lack the endorsements common to other players of comparable rank. In her unadorned togs, which lacked the usual billboard advertising for airlines, breath mints or car rentals, McNeil appeared to be some abbess of tennis.
Both Garrison and McNeil have been brought along by John Wilkerson, a public-parks coach who, felicitously, had the 11-year-old Lori dumped in his lap by her mother, Dorothy, who had been taking lessons from him. McNeil's athletic genes may come from the other side of her family, however; her father, Charlie, was a defensive back with the San Diego Chargers. She is more open than Garrison and altogether "such a nice person," says Wilkerson, "that Lori can be taken advantage of."
The Houston ensemble is popular on tour and always at home among themselves. There is a lot of teasing. For example, in Europe this summer Wilkerson and Garrison wouldn't let McNeil order Peking duck because, they kidded her, she often glances up from her volleys as if she's looking to shoot some ducks out of the sky—and that's enough ducks for her without having another one on her plate.
At Flushing Meadow, McNeil surprised No. 1 seed Graf—and everybody else—by winning the first set 6-4, though, to be fair, Graf had come down with fever and flu. Still, McNeil played her perfectly. Pam Shriver, another serve-and-volley player, had lost to Graf in straight sets in the quarters, but Shriver was sure she had failed only in her execution, not in her rush-the-net strategy. "The puzzle is solved," she said and passed the tips on to the other American.
This only encouraged McNeil to play Graf much as she had Evert. She came in on almost every opportunity. The idea was to put the pressure on Graf, make her thread the passing needle time and time again, especially because she rarely lobs. Take the pace off the ball and don't serve from the same spot every time; give Graf "different looks." Feed her enough wide forehands to force her out of her favorite spot, the backhand corner, where she can open up and bust her forehand.
As Navratilova watched from the television booth, McNeil carried out the plan. She came in 93 times against Graf, sharply cutting volley thrusts. Though Graf evened the match by winning the second set 6-2, McNeil didn't falter, and with Graf serving at 3-all in the third, McNeil was on top of the net at break point. From behind the baseline all Graf could manage was a wobbly forehand. With just a love tap back into the nearly empty court, McNeil would be serving at 4-3. Instead, at the last instant, McNeil glanced up and pushed the ball deep down into the net. The moment was gone. Graf got the last break: 6-4.
Her father, Peter Graf, waved to her, and Steffi ran to him and kissed him smack on the lips. He hugged her and whispered joyously into her ear. He seemed so proud that she had won in spite of being so weak. Then Steffi hurried off to take her medicine.
McNeil moved along under the grandstand until Wilkerson suddenly appeared before her. He embraced her, and she looked into his face. He didn't console her. Instead, he broke a little smile, and all he said was, "Well, we killed all but the one duck." McNeil smiled back at her coach, sharing their little secret.
For the finals the next day Graf still had some fever. She first faced Navratilova, two years ago. Graf was a 16-year-old with three inches to grow. They played in the semis at Flushing Meadow, and beforehand Peter had said, "There are no possibilities Steffi can win." But when Martina trounced her 2 and 3, much as he had predicted, he was so upset he steered his daughter away, screaming at a photographer before Navratilova could properly console her. Last year, in the semis again, Graf held three match points before falling to Martina.
This year Graf beat Navratilova twice—once in the French Open final—before losing a tough match at Wimbledon, on her opponent's best surface. But Navratilova was so sure that she was back in form and that she knew how to deal with the new threat, she went to sleep on Friday night fearful only of overconfidence. She dropped her first service game, but won the opening set in a tiebreaker. She then pounded Graf 6-1 in the second set. First Graf's backhand went, and then even her vaunted forehand was in tatters.