Her timing is impeccable. After suffering an early-round loss to 15th-ranked Jana Novotna at the French Open—it was that defeat that prompted her to hire Kirmayr—Sabatini was generally written off as being incapable of challenging Graf's supremacy. Since then, though, she has come closer than either Seles or Graf to possessing a complete game, and has even become a lively presence on the court, often buoying herself with deep grunts and air jabs. The second serve is Sabatini's one remaining weakness.
Graf was given pause by Sabatini's near flawless play in the semis. Graf built a 3-0 lead, but Sabatini came close to dominating her the rest of the way. Graf still has a 20-5 career record against Sabatini, but Saturday's result, coupled with Sabatini's victory over Graf in the finals at Flushing Meadow, proves that the long-awaited rivalry between these two has finally come to fruition. Graf conceded as much, saying, "Her kind of game is making things difficult, and she knows it now."
Ultimately, 1990 will be remembered as much for Graf's travails as for the growing threats posed by Seles and Sabatini. Graf's year-end state of mind became evident when she called Navratilova shortly before her operation to offer her good wishes. It was the sort of gesture Graf had never before extended to Navratilova. "Who?" Navratilova said in shock as she answered the phone.
On Nov. 11 noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman performed an hour-long arthroscopic procedure at the Vail (Colo.) Valley Medical Center to correct tendinitis and remove calcium deposits in both of Navratilova's knees. Navratilova will undergo six to eight weeks of rehabilitation that could buy her three or four more competitive years on the tour. "I've had a sprained ankle that hurt worse," she said after the surgery.
It's understandable that Graf would have compassion for anyone in pain. She has endured this year, in order, a broken thumb on her right hand in a freak skiing accident in February, an agonizing sinus condition through much of the spring that required surgery after Wimbledon, and persistent tabloid reports of the liaison between her father, Peter, and Playboy model Nicole Meissner. In the latest twist in this saga, Peter recently was ordered to take a blood test to help determine if he is the father of Meissner's daughter.
On Nov. 13, during her stirring 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 opening-round victory over 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati, Steffi was stricken with gastritis, for which a trainer at courtside administered an antacid. The week before the Slims, Graf had won a tournament while suffering from the flu. "I've had a very, very difficult year," Graf said following the tournament. "I don't think they can come more difficult than this. I probably learned a lot. Much more than I ever wanted to."
At times this year she was an obviously vulnerable young woman. During the U.S. Open she took a tour official's dog for a walk because she missed her own pets. Last week she asked if the same pooch was still in New York. She recently bought a gold band for her wedding finger to symbolize a new sense of self-reliance. Tabloids in Europe seized on the purchase (I WAS SO UNHAPPY I 'MARRIED' MYSELF cried the Daily Express), and she now cringes at the mere mention of the subject. "I buy a ring and everybody makes a big deal," she said. "I just liked it. That's just an example of how...I mean, what can you do?"
More guarded and yet, paradoxically, more openly sensitive than she used to be, Graf promised not to endure the misery of 1990 ever again, even if it means taking her sport less seriously. "I always knew tennis was not everything for me," she said. "But I learned it's not important compared to many, many things. That's why I think maybe I'm going to take it easy next year. I'm just going to enjoy it. I'm actually looking very much forward to it. I'm going to get into it, and I'm going to be much more relaxed."
However, that should not be taken to mean Graf has lost her ambition. That she was shaken and angered by last week's loss to Sabatini became evident when she was asked in a postmatch press conference whether she still considered herself No. 1. "You are laughing," Graf said. "You like to ask that question, right?"
"I don't like to," replied the scribe.