Long after Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander have taken their unbearably tedious Connecticut state championship rivalry back to Greenwich, where it belongs; after Jimmy Connors has run out of energy and Andre Agassi out of peroxide; and after the men and women of tennis have buried the sport in their alphabet political wars, 19-year-old Steffi Graf may still be winning Grand Slams. By then maybe somebody will care.
Oh, the folks who run the U.S. Open pulled out all the stops to try to get us excited. In celebration of Graf's achievement, they hauled out the flags of the four nations—Australia, France, England and the U.S.—in which she won her Slam titles, as well as a couple of other dynasty types, Don Budge and Linda Evans. Yet during and following Graf's 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Gabriela Sabatini in Saturday's final, which elevated Graf to a historical plateau that only four other players have reached—Budge (in 1938), Maureen Connolly (1953), Rod Laver (1962 and '69) and Margaret Court (1970) also won tennis's four major championships in the same calendar year—you could cut the ennui at Flushing Meadow with a hacksaw.
Was it because Martina Navratilova was so busy complaining during the fortnight that her six consecutive Grand Slam victories in 1983 and '84 should count as a Slam, even though they didn't meet the calendar requirements, that she lost in the quarterfinals to Zina Garrison? ("The last glimmer of twilight—I'm afraid Madame M has lost her nerve," said Martina's friend and former couturier, Ted Tinling, after Garrison's 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 upset.) Was it because a seriously ill Chris Evert had to default her semifinal against Graf after coming down with gastroenteritis? Or was it because the rest of the women's field was in the grip of a far more serious disease known as Graf Infection?
"Ninety-eight percent of the girls are scared to death to play her," said Patty Fendick, the tart-tongued Stanford psychology graduate who took six games from Graf in the fourth round. "I got my butt kicked, but at least I kept coming in and volleying."
Perhaps Graf herself—so stern, so relentless, so impassive (just another day at the guillotine), so downright terrific—is to blame. Her emotions seem to run the gamut from A to B: from apathy to boredom. Surely she knew what she was accomplishing. Certainly she realized her place in history. "To achieve this at such an early age would be great," said Graf earlier in the tournament.
But after she had done so, she was asked if this was the greatest day of her life. "It's hard to say," said Graf. "It needs some time. The next couple of days will be good." Then she was gone, flying home to Bruhl, West Germany, almost before night had fallen on an achievement that even the normally phlegmatic Lendl called "amazing, unbelievable. I don't care if it was against old ladies or everybody was sick."
The American crowd may have been hesitant to give Graf her due simply because she didn't have to face either Evert or Navratilova in the tournament. However, the only player to beat Graf all year had been her doubles partner, Sabatini, who defeated her twice in the spring. So Sabatini might have been the biggest hurdle anyway.
In the second set on Saturday, Sabatini found the range with her high-bouncing topspin, and Graf actually missed a few forehands. When Sabatini grabbed the set and volleyed a winner for the first point of the third set, it looked as if Graf had a match on her hands. Alas, Sabatini, whose shoulders are approaching Bosworthian dimensions, doesn't share the stamina of the Boz. She all but collapsed from exhaustion, losing eight straight points and 15 of the next 17 before Graf let her up for air.
"Steffi's mentality was perfect," said Sabatini. But Graf's superior conditioning was what won this day. Evert in the Australian Open final, Natalia Zvereva at the French, Navratilova at Wimbledon, and now Sabatini at Flushing Meadow: They all got a chance at Graf. So let there be no complaints about this year's biggest winner in sports.
Meanwhile, Steffi's father, Peter, is not winning a lot of friends for the family. The Svengalian nature of his control over his daughter is well documented. After a Milan newspaper referred to Steffi as "the one with the grande naso [big nose]," Peter pulled her out of this year's Italian Open. He allowed her to grace the Wimbledon champions' dinner only because she had to stick around to play a rain-delayed doubles final. Then, at the U.S. Open, he refused to let her attend the annual dinner of the Women's International Tennis Association (WITA)—at which she was being honored as Player of the Year—until he was guaranteed that she could be in bed by 9 p.m. sharp. That meant providing the Graf's with a room at the Plaza Hotel, where the dinner was held, and rearranging the awards ceremony. "The WITA is intimidated by Peter," said Pam Shriver, the No. 4 seed at the Open.