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Bruce Newman
March 27, 1989
Awesome in '88, Steffi Graf is even better now as she pursues a second straight Slam
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March 27, 1989

Unstoppable Steffi

Awesome in '88, Steffi Graf is even better now as she pursues a second straight Slam

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Steffi Graf peered across the net early in her final-round match of the Virginia Slims of Florida on Sunday and suddenly recognized the face peering back at her. Normally this would not be a big deal, but Graf rarely sees faces on the other side of the net; she sees chalk outlines of bodies on the ground. Yet this was definitely a face to be reckoned with, and the shock of recognition may have caused her, for once, to be less than perfect.

The face belonged to Chris Evert, and soon enough so did the first set of their match at the Polo Club of Boca Raton. Evert, who has won 18 Grand Slam tournaments in her career, summoned up one more lapidary set before Graf went on to win 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. By taking a set from Graf, the first she has surrendered in 22 matches this year. Evert, 34, may have elevated herself to the stature of a sort of Mother Courage figure in the locker room.

Graf spent most of the first set pinned to the baseline by Evert's deep ground strokes, and she didn't generate any power with her predatory forehand. "I was trying to run her around with the slice backhand to tire her out," said Graf, "but it was not the right thing to do." Graf righted herself in the second set, but Evert had a chance to pull even at 4-4 in the third when she went up 40-15 in the eighth game. Then Evert twice fed Graf's forehand, and Steffi hammered them for winners. Evert had creased the lines all day, but by now her shots had begun to lose their punch.

"I knew I had to hit out because any soft ball she just kills," said Evert. "In the third set the angles on her shots got sharper and sharper. It's tough to know what to do against her, but for this one match I almost played to her standards. She's head and shoulders above everybody else."

"It was scary out there," said Helen Kelesi, the 16th-ranked player in the world, after Graf administered a 6-1, 6-1 thrashing in the quarterfinals. "I was just trying to hit the ball back, and I couldn't even do that."

Graf was everywhere, achieving near-omnipotence on the court. "With me the mental part of the game was always stronger than the physical," said Evert. "Martina was always known for the physical aspects of her game. Steffi has both."

Though Graf insists that "you Americans have too many statistics," here are a few numbers worth pondering. Of the 42 sets she played this year before facing Evert, she won 14 at 6-1 and a dozen at 6-0. In those 21 matches Graf lost an average of only 3.23 games, which suggests the frightening possibility that she is getting better. '"She doesn't like to lose a single point," says Terry Phelps. "She's always like that, so intense. For two years she's been like that. You'd think after a while she'd get bored."

Is Graf simply in that groove that tennis players call "the zone," in which every ball looks as big as a cantaloupe? "Usually a player will be zoned for a match, or sometimes for a tournament," says Susan Sloane, who lost 6-0, 6-1 to Graf in the second round. "But this has been going on for a long time" Graf's victory over Evert gave her 186 wins in her last 192 matches.

The idea began to get around even before last week that it no longer mattered whom Graf was playing, that she just pulled the trigger on her forehand and waited for authorities to notify the next of kin. She had reduced the rest of the women's tour to an army of tall, thin, short, fat faceless ciphers who offered her an opportunity to work out whatever small refinements remained to be made in her game. When Phelps double-faulted against her at a tournament in San Antonio earlier this month, Phelps had an urge to apologize to Graf. "I felt like she'd be mad at me because I wasn't giving her enough practice or something." says Phelps.

Graf's draw last week was typical of the level of resistance she now faces. Although Martina Navratilova was the only player among the world's first five who was missing, the field was so far behind Graf that the only topic of interest at her press conference on Friday concerned the degree of her dominance. Someone asked how she felt about being "not human, a tennis machine," and some other wretch asked if, at age 19, she was considering retirement.

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