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The day before Chris Evert Lloyd faced Hana Mandlikova in the semifinals of last week's Lipton Players International Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., she was asked what she thought of the other semi, between Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. "I better not say," said Evert Lloyd with a sneaky smile. "I might get myself into trouble."
Ever the diplomat, Evert Lloyd wasn't about to say what she really thought—that the jig was up. For more than a year tennis cognoscenti had been marveling at the 17-year-old Graf's amazing gifts, especially her speed and her scorching forehand. And hadn't she come within one point of knocking Navratilova out of last year's U.S. Open? At that time Graf's serve and backhand were still vulnerable, but in the ensuing five months she had obviously worked hard to turn those strokes into weapons, too. Moreover, in her first five matches at the Lipton she had looked saber sharp, dropping only 12 games all told. Said Lisa Bonder after losing 6-0, 6-1 to Graf in the quarterfinals in 36 minutes: "I've played Martina. I've played Chris. Nobody hits the ball as hard as Steffi does. I felt like I was out there feeding the ball to her to put away."
So what Evert Lloyd was saying without really saying it was that the waiting was over, the prodigy was ready to become a champion, and she would prove it by beating the No. 1 player in the world. The match wasn't even close. Graf moved better, passed better, returned better and dealt better with the blustery winds to win 6-3, 6-2. Afterward, Navratilova acknowledged that she was "awful" but only because Graf had played "almost flawless tennis. There's no two ways about it, she outplayed me.... Today she was the best player in the world, and she will be until I play her again."
In Saturday's final, Graf underscored Navratilova's assessment by routing Evert Lloyd 6-1, 6-2 in 58 minutes. In her 14-year career, Evert Lloyd has been held to three games or less by only four players—Margaret Court, Tracy Austin, Navratilova and now Graf. "I'm surprised by how easily I won," said Graf. I thought it would be a much tougher match than the one against Martina because Chris and I both play from the baseline."
Evert Lloyd, who barely had a chance to warm up, agreed. "Steffi plays like she's in a hurry," she said. "It's sort of like she wants to get off the court." And peering into her crystal ball once again, Evert Lloyd added that while "Martina is still Number 1, I wouldn't want to predict who's Number 1 at the end of the year. There's no reason why Steffi can't win all the tournaments—Wimbledon, the U.S. Open—especially now that Martina is 30 and I'm 32."
Graf's ascent has been spectacular. Consider that at the end of 1984 she was ranked No. 22, and that by the end of 1985 she still had not won a tournament, which made her pretty much like dozens of other promising young pros. Then came 1986.
Early last year, while sitting around Madison Square Garden between her matches at the Virginia Slims Championships, Graf was musing about her brand-new No. 3 ranking. "Unbelievable," she said. A month later at Amelia Island, Fla., she was gazing at a calm Atlantic and reflecting on her two-tournament winning streak (which would become four): "Unbelievable." One day last summer Steffi was sitting on her bed back home in Brühl, West Germany—a village near Heidelberg where townsfolk are as proud of Steffi as they are of the local white asparagus—awash in fan letters: "Unbelievable." Her father, Peter, surveyed the scene: "Unbelievable." Downstairs, her mother, Heidi, was slicing onions and pondering her daughter's celebrity: "Unbelievable."
By the end of the year Graf had eight tournament wins in 14 tries, three runner-up finishes, that brilliant albeit losing effort in the U.S. Open semifinals to Navratilova (Tennis magazine chose the 6-1, 6-7, 7-6, two-day battle as its Match of the Year), official earnings of $612,118 and an off-court income from endorsements and exhibitions of at least $500,000. She also defeated Navratilova and Evert Lloyd for the first time. But, alas, she failed to win a Grand Slam tournament and was still only No. 3, which led her to confide to a friend, "No. 3 doesn't count for anything." Nor, in her mind, does No. 2, which is where she is now after having overtaken Evert Lloyd on the computer two weeks ago. Except for Tracy Austin, who was ranked No. 1 or 2 for brief spells between 1979 and '81, Graf is the first player to break the Navratilova-Evert Lloyd stranglehold on the top 2 since 1978.
These days, Graf seems to have only one detractor—Mandlikova. Hardly a disinterested observer, Mandlikova sees herself as the next queen. "I think Steffi is just a new star," she says coolly, "and the other players don't know how to play her. We shall see how she plays when the pressure is on her." Says Navratilova, who has heard variations on Mandlikova's heiress-apparent refrain for years, "Steffi is a more consistent and more threatening player. Hana has been around much longer."
Graf has more or less sneaked up on the American sporting public, which to the extent it follows women's tennis is still tuned to the Chris and Martina Show. Graf plays with the dour countenance of someone who has just discovered fuel injection problems in her new Mercedes while in the left lane of the autobahn. "I like to laugh," Graf says, "but on the court, it is my work. I try to smile, but it is so difficult. I concentrate on the ball, not on my face."