October 1, 2013 by Parveer Mann
When the IOC and ITF finalized the inclusion of tennis as an official sport for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, they couldn’t have imagined the historical ramifications of the event. Neither could Steffi Graf who only two weeks removed from winning her first US Open was expected win an unprecedented Gold medal.
“I was a bit tired emotionally, probably physically as well,” Graf said.
“I just remember arriving at the airport and all the attention that I was getting, I just think I wasn’t quite prepared for it at that point.”- cnn.com
However, the Olympic experience would help heal many physical and mental ailments caused by the long season. As a natural born athlete, she relished being in the company of other Olympians and took advantage of her off-days by practicing with West German track stars. Many years later, Graf would explain why despite the grueling effects of a long season, she still seemed so poised during her time in Seoul.
“To me this was bigger than a grand slam, it was more special,” Graf said in 2012.
“It’s a different feeling, it’s very unique and definitely more special.” –cnn.com
Different format, same results
Unlike the Grand Slams, Steffi would only need to win five matches in Seoul (all seeded players received a first-round bye) to claim the gold medal. Also, she would not have to worry about a potential matchup with Martina Navratilova who declined her spot on the US team, the only elite player to do so. For the notoriously focused Graf, I’m sure the number of wins needed or the competition she would face would not have figured into her preparation.
Her early opponents (Leila Meskhi, Soviet Union and Catherine Suire, France) were unable to pose any real challenges to the superior Graf. It would be Larisa Savchenko, a Latvian-born player who would provide the major scare in Graf’s run to the medal round. The 11th-seeded Savchenko and others knew that the best chance to beat Steffi would probably be early. The mentally exhausted Steffi would eventually overcome Larisa and grind her way to a three-set win and ensure the dream of a Golden Slam was alive.
Ultimately that early test seemed to invigorate Graf as she played her best match of the Olympics in her semifinals beatdown of American Zina Garrison.
October 1st 1988 will forever be a date etched in tennis lore. After defeating Gabriela Sabatini (like she did in New York) in two sets, 19-year old Steffi Graf achieved something that she couldn’t possibly have fully understood at that point, the ‘newly coined’ Golden Slam. Her victory celebration was muted (nothing new) as she showed very little outward emotion beside a huge smile and hugs for her dad and coach. However, her achievement could not have been understated, to paraphrase the New York Times, for the time being Graf had run out of challenges and for once everyone could simply agree.
”I’m very excited,” she said. ”It’s something not many people after me will achieve. It’s amazing.” -Steff after her win in 1988. –nytimes.com
The Golden Slam season remains one of the greatest achievements in tennis history. No other player has yet to equal the feat in the 25 years since Graf did it and many think it may never be done again. It is an achievement that can be held against any sports record without any hesitation.
Recently, the WTA 40 series commemorating significant moments in WTA history released a short video where current players both discussed their admiration for Steffi and her magical 1988 season. Have a watch and see how it perfectly symbolizes what Graf and her 1988 season means to current players and how tennis fans and historians should remember it: A magical run by a tennis icon.