June 20, 2013 by Parveer Mann
There was a certain degree of buzz at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet club coming into the ’88 Championships. Both Steffi Graf and Mats Wilander came into Wimbledon after winning the Australian Open and the French Open that year.
By doing so, they sparked conversation about the possibility of a truly magical run that had not been seen in over a decade (1970 to be exact) but also quiet pessimism. Fans and Pundits alike knew that for any serious discussion to begin these two would have to do something they never had done before: Conquer Wimbledon.
At the end of the fortnight, we would see a Swede win the Gentlemen’s title (Stefan Edberg over Boris Becker; Wilander was bounced in the quarterfinals) and witness a Steffi Graf who had officially taken the proverbial torch in the women’s game.
Déjà vu early
The start of the Championships for Steffi was eerily similar to her dominant conclusion in Paris as she once again served a double bagel (this time to Hu Na, a naturalized American largely known for having defected from China in the early 1980’s). The first round victory would be followed by similarly easy romps over Karine Quentrec (France), Terry Phelps (USA) and Mary Joe Fernandez (USA).
An interesting fact is that Graf would strangely only face women of French and American citizenship throughout the entire tournament. I think this speaks to both the political climate of the late 1980’s (pre-Soviet Union collapse) and the general strength of American tennis that has sadly diminished in the last 25 years.
Graf’s tunnel vision
In a 1989 New York Times piece, Robin Finn wrote about the focused and unflappable persona that Steffi was developing in big tournaments:
… Graf is impervious to the identities of her opponents, flicking the challengers away with the same consideration she might afford a swarm of gnats.
While many would consider this another reason to label the young Graf as a cold tennis prodigy. One who seemed unable to relate to other players and fans. I would frame this young Graf as someone who was so keenly focused on singular goals that it could not have seen like anything but disdain to her fellow players.
We all know that this belief was wrong and that Steffi liked and admired many of her foes, it just seemed hard to show it on court when you were so darn hard to beat. Just ask Pam Shriver, who would suffer another crushing loss in the semifinals to Graf and openly question herself if she ever had a chance.
Changing the status quo
As I wrote previously, Steffi’s back to back wins in Paris had officially dethroned the aging queen of clay, Chris Evert but she had done nothing yet against the reigning queen of grass. Since 1978, Martina Navratilova had won eight Wimbledon titles including six in a row since ’82. She was largely considered the best volleyer the game had ever seen and that success at Wimbledon had extended to both doubles and mixed doubles. Plus, she had beaten Steffi twice in last year’s Wimbledon and US Open finals (something that Graf would work hard to remedy).
Like the ’87 final, Martina versus Steffi would offer tennis fans the chance to witness a matchup between the best hands in the game (Navratilova) and the best forehand and mover (Graf). It also seemed like the perfect chance to overthrow Navratilova, who had struggled through both her quarterfinal and semifinal matches.
The match would not start the way Graf intended as she would lose the first set 7-5. However, knowing that Graf’s advantage lay in her youth and superb court movement, she would remain focused and ultimately dominate the remaining match. That moment after Graf won the third set 6-1 over a weary Navratilova would in my mind mark the official moment the women’s game on every surface shifted to being Steffi’s alone. A title that she would largely hold until the emergence of Monica Seles in the early 1990’s.