August 23, 2013 by Parveer Mann
When late August rolled around, Steffi had yet another personal hurdle she wanted to overcome. A year ago, she had suffered a pretty resounding defeat to Martina Navratilova (7-6, 6-1) in a US Open final where she committed 60 unforced errors and seemed largely ineffective. The match was evidence to some writers and players that there was a way to beat Steffi (force the ball to her backhand and attack the net).
The loss was as much a learning opportunity for other players as it was for Graf. It was evident all through the 1988 season that she had subtly changed her backhand slice (a weakness in her stellar game). She was willing to do more with the shot by changing its depth, pace and location throughout a match. She unfortunately would not get a chance to use it against Martina in New York (Navratilova lost in the quarters to American Zina Garrison) but would get the chance to show it to all those writers and players that questioned her weakness. She could learn and adjust and those lessons proved instrumental on the way to a USO triumph.
Five Romps and a Walkover
You have to give it to Steffi that she never made things uncomfortable for herself in the early rounds in 1988. It is either a sign of her utter dominance that year or a sign of the inferior completion she faced. Her first four opponents Elizabeth Minter (Australia), Manon Bollegraf (Netherlands), Nathalie Herreman (France) and Patty Fendick (USA) won a combined six WTA events over their careers.
The first top-15 opponent she would face was Katerina Maleeva, one of the fabulous Maleeva sisters. She was a player who Graf had already beaten in tournament finals in San Antonio and Hamburg that year and the result in the quarters would be very similar. Surprisingly, it would be Graf’s last match before the final as Chris Evert would have to withdraw with a stomach virus before the semifinals. Talk about good fortune for a player who really didn’t need any the way she was playing.
Showdown with Sabatini
I foreshadowed the significance of Sabatini-Graf in 1988 earlier but the US Open final clash would mark their biggest meeting to date. The fifth ranked, 18 year old Sabatini would also be relatively unchallenged on her way to her first Grand Slam final. The resulting clash of teenagers would be hotly anticipated and in many ways lived up to the hype.
Like Navratilova, Sabatini was a significantly better net player than Graf and would consistently rely on that strategy over the course of the match. Graf would need her dominant forehand and improved backhand slice to be more effective unlike ’87 for her to be the aggressor in the match.
The players would split the opening two sets (6-3, 3-6) to set up a decisive final set. It would be in that final set that Graf’s mental instinct and bigger tools would prove too much for the younger and more inexperienced Sabatini. Ironically, it would be a net exchange in Graf’s favour that clinched the US Open title and an invitation to the exclusive Grand Slam club.
Welcome to the Club
Some of the biggest names in the history of tennis and Steffi Graf rightfully took her place among them. The calendar Grand Slam in ’88 would be the first of any kind (men’s or women’s) since Court in 1970. It came at a time when women’s tennis arguably overshadowed the men and with a champion who represented the natural born instincts of a tennis wunderkind.
It also wasn’t the last achievement she would have in 1988 as in three weeks’ time; tennis history would be all hers.