ON THIS DAY... Steffi Graf: a brush with immortality

It is considered the ultimate achievement in the game — the Grand Slam. And it takes more than talent and drive to sweep the four major titles in a calendar year. but to do it at age 19! Wonders never cease... thanks to players like Steffi Graf.

For Steffi Graf, the sky seems the limit.   -  Getty Images

From above, the Centre Court of the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon is a captivating, mysterious organism with an inner, often sun-splashed, ring of moving colours, a dark forest green outer band and a still, icily cold green heart. But for all the imperturbable correctness and order that this may convey, at ground level, the odd inconsistencies of the turf, with hundreds of brown patches on gleaming green, are clearly visible, especially during the second week of the fortnight.

On the first Saturday of July last, Steffi Graf, playing in her second straight Wimbledon singles final, and against the same opponent, Martina Navratilova, stood still in one corner of the court, in front of the Rolex ticking away remorselessly.

Time was ticking away, too, for the West German teenager as she stood pondering the inconsistencies: not the scar-tissues on the worn turf but the wounds inflicted on her own game by the relentless grass court aggression of Martina.

It might have been just a routine pause to even out her breathing; but it wasn't. It was a moment of decision making, a moment of inestimable importance to Steffi and, in the light of what happened later, a moment of considerable historic significance. For right then, Steffi had lost the first set and was down 0-2 in the second.

Steely will

Someday soon, after all the euphoria over her Grand Slam has died down, Graf will perhaps sit down at her Bruhl home in West Germany, with the voice of her favourite Bruce Springsteen floating in the background, and wonder how she willed herself to surpassing greatness at the moment of despair against Martina that Saturday.

"Not like last year, you are better than that, I told myself", Graf would later recall of that moment. God, was she better! Over the next nine games she won in a row, Steffi probably hit more winners than there were strawberries consumed during the fortnight.

With any great human being who aims for the ultimate in his area of activity, there is one moment, a fleeting, often unnoticed instant, when resolve, gifts, drive and even a touch of genius coalesce in all their glory to carry the individual to heights unfamiliar to lesser mortals. And it was in that moment during the final at Wimbledon, barely three weeks past her 19th birthday, that Steffi broke surface, drawing clear of the pack of teen prodigies who have delighted us from time to time in the last decade and more, without ever really threatening to join the ranks of the all-time greats.

A fine blend

With Steffi, of course, it is not just a threat any more. It is a fact. The world of women's tennis has never before seen a more powerful teenaged player, someone who combines the consistency and maturity of a seasoned pro with the boundless energy, enthusiasm and drive of youth to top it all with the strength of character and iron will of the champion.

After winning at Wimbledon, Steffi was not able to name the last Grand Slam champion. You couldn't blame her. She must have just about learnt to say her own name back in 1970, when Margaret Smith Court won the four majors to emulate Maureen 'Little Mo' Connolly, who first achieved the feat in 1953. Now, however, you can be sure that Fraulein Graf will not forget the name of the latest addition to the exclusive Grand Slam club. Sometimes you need to make history yourself to become aware of history.

Talking of history, the Grand Slam occupies a very special place in the game's history. Only two men and three women have blended in the right proportion the inspiration of genius and the perspiration of hard work over nine exhausting months to sweep the four majors in a given calendar year. And only one, the peerless Rod Laver, has been able to do it twice (the second time as a pro).

Martina, perhaps the greatest athlete the game has ever known and one who is right up at the top in the list of all-time greats, will certainly be irked over the fact that her superb feat of 1983-84 — she won six Grand Slam titles in a row — is not universally recognised as the Grand Slam.

Steffi Graf of Germany makes a return against Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini during the women's singles final at the U.S. Open tennis championship on September 10, 1988 at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York.   -  Getty Images

 

It is no doubt an enormous achievement (Martina's) in an era when even great champions find it difficult to win two or three majors in a row. But feats such as the Grand Slam are rare and they carry a special halo about them only because they are not within easy reach.

When the New York Times tennis writer, the late Allison Danzig borrowed a term from the game of bridge to describe the achievement of Don Budge in winning the four majors in 1938, Grand Slam became the ultimate a player could aim for, the Everest among the game's peaks.

Dubious logic

And for a long time it was believed that a player had to win the four major events — the French, Wimbledon, U.S. and Australian Opens — in the same year to pull off the Grand Slam. But the International Tennis Federation officials, in a particularly enlightened moment, chose to adulterate the term Grand Slam by bringing in the dubious logic of "why not a Grand Slam for anyone who wins four in-a-row".

The ITF even announced a purse of $1 million for the first man or woman to win four in-a-row and Martina promptly responded to the challenge and her bank account swelled by an additional million. Of course, Martina is considered by a few even now — the few include the ITF and the Women's International Tennis Association — to have completed the Grand Slam but a vast majority of the tennis media, former players and the public do not agree. To this day, the question is not fully resolved by all parties.

Pressure, competition and the sheer difficulty of putting it all together to win four majors in four different countries in vastly dissimilar conditions during a given year make the Grand Slam very special and the argument in favour of the calendar year requirement is wholly convincing.

The pressure

During the Wimbledon Championships, with Steffi one title away from winning the Grand Slam, two of the greatest champions of the game, both Grand Slammers, talked about the pressures going into the final leg of the Slam. "The final leg... it was a lot of pressure," said Margaret Court. "You think, I've got three and this is it. There is more pressure on the last one."

Rod Laver, however, said he did not feel the pressure overmuch before the last leg because "it wasn't as publicised as it is now. There pressure wasn't something I dwelled on." And then, said Laver, "the first time is the toughest, the second time is more meaningful." Who else will know that, Rod?

Steffi, incidentally, is not the first teenager to win the Grand Slam. Maureen Connolly was 18 when she won the Slam in 1953 without losing a single set in the four finals. How many more Slams would this girl win was the question then, but a tragic accident while horseback riding in 1954 cut short Maureen's brilliant career.

For Steffi, the sky seems the limit. She is not only in the unique position of being in line for an Olympic gold medal just after winning the Slam but the near future appears so full of promise. With Martina and Chris Evert, the two players who dominated the game for so long, on the way out, she does not seem to have too many challengers to her position at the top.

The challenger

Over the past two years, Steffi has grown on so many different levels that it has become difficult for even the wonderfully gifted Gabriela Sabatini to catch up with her doubles partner. Sabatini herself has made tremendous strides this season, chiefly in terms of improving her serves and staying power and when she beat Steffi twice in succession early this year after 11 straight losses, a burden was lifted from the charming Argentine whose fanmail outweighs Diego Maradona's.

But Steffi is stronger physically and emotionally and it is hard to imagine Sabatini streaking ahead of her West German rival and staying there for any meaningful period of time in the near future although the rivalry is so full of exciting possibilities and is just the kind of stuff that will keep the interest in women's tennis pegged at a high level at a time when Martina and Chris are on the decline.

Most of all, it is the champion's will that will keep Steffi and the other great players apart. Not that the attractive Sabatini does not have the will to win. It is just that Steffi is stronger, and she seems to have been born with it.

Graf took time off to be at home for a couple of weeks after winning Wimbledon. She was bitten on the middle finger of her right hand by Max, her German Shepherd as she tried to break up a fight between her dog and her neighbour's. When she came back from hospital with a plaster cast extending to her elbow, Max again jumped for it thinking it was a learning device. But Max's teeth couldn't penetrate it.

In the world of women's tennis, it is now going to take some special kind of 'teeth' to penetrate the cast with which Steffi Graf protects her world champion status.

This article was published in The Sportstar, dated September 24, 1988