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Remembering Steffi Graf's Golden Slam
by Dr. Gerry Coulter
2013-09-27 11:19:53
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Twenty-five years ago this week Steffi Graf defeated Gabriella Sabatini (6-3, 3-6, 6-1) to win the U. S. Open Women’s Tennis Title. The victory made her the third woman in history to win the Calendar Year Grand Slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) along with Maureen Connolly Brinker (1953), and Margaret Court (1970). Graf added the Olympic Gold Medal in Seoul making her slam “golden” as the media subsequently dubbed it.

Graf had an above average serve but what made her one of the best players of all time were her powerful forehand and her incredible speed and agility. Graf covered the court better than any top-ranked women’s player in the past fifty years.

My first memory of Graf is her winning the Women’s Finals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games where tennis was a demonstration sport (for the second time having failed in its bid in 1968). She was a fifteen year old tennis brat at the time, already champion of (West) Germany, and not a player toward who I was especially drawn. The next three years would begin to change my perspective significantly.

Steffi learned to win, as most great champions do, by losing. As she rose in the World rankings she suffered several losses to the two women she would have to beat: Chris Everett and then reigning Women’s World Number One, Martina Navratilova. In her first six matches combined against these two superstars of the tennis world Steffi lost all six in straight sets. She looked for all the world like one of those players who would settle into the top-ten of her generation and might even win a Grand Slam event or two given the right circumstances. It was late 1986, Everett and Navratilova had won, between them, 18 of the past 19 Women’s Grand Slam events (Hana Mandlikova having won the 1985 U.S. Open). Mandlikova would also win the 1987 Australian Open and then Steffi would win 9 of the next 12 Grand Slam events.

Graf’s life changed forever at the 1987 Miami tournament where she eliminated Navratilova in the semi-finals and Everett in the finals (losing a total of 20 games in the seven rounds of the tournament). She was now 17 and for the first time it was Navratilova who was tinkering with her game in an effort to better Steffi’s. Graf again defeated Navratilova at the French Open a few weeks later (6-4, 4-6, 8-6). Martina did not yield her World Number One ranking quietly as she went on to win the final two Grand Slam events of 1987 in London and New York. Despite this Graf left 1987 on top of the World Rankings (she held that place for the next 377 weeks).

Graf’s Golden Slam of 1988 began with a defeat over Everett (6-1, 7-6) in the finals in Australia – a tournament in which Steffi never lost a set. At the French Final Graf defeated Natasha Zvereva (6-0, 6-0) in 32 minutes (Zvereva having defeated Navratilova in the semi-finals). At Wimbledon, where Navratilova had won the previous six women’s titles, Graf prevailed over Martina (5-7, 6-2, 6-1) winning 12 of the final 13 games of the match. In those amazing games the world could see in Martina’s eyes and drained expression, that a torch had been passed. Watching the match on television millions around the world could not but feel sorry for Martina while simultaneously feeling awed by Graf’s speed and power game. It was one of those rare moments when we remember why we love sport so much – a moment that transcends the game and generations. Graf then defeated Gabriella Sabatini in three sets to complete the Calendar Year Grand Slam in New York. A few weeks later she defeated Sabatini (6-3, 6-3) to capture the 1988 Olympic Gold Medal.

Following her U.S. Open victory in 1988 Graf would go on to win 17 more Grand Slam Championships winning each of the four events at least four times each. Four times, 1989, 1993, 1995 and 1996, she won three of the four Grand slam events.

In 1998, at age 29, and ranked 6th in the world, Graf had her final run of Grand Slam glory at the French Open. She became the first woman in history to defeat the first, second, and third ranked players in the event, winning the final (4-6, 7-5, 6-2) over Martina Hingis. It was Graf’s 22nd and final Grand Slam tournament victory. Later that year in New York a 17 year-old kid named Serena Williams would win her first Grand slam event.

Following tennis Graf married men’s tennis star Andrea Agassi with whom she parents two children, neither of whom it appears, will be tennis stars.

This month, as September becomes October, and the 25th anniversary of the final days of the Seoul Olympics is remembered (largely for the Ben Johnson scandal in the men’s 100 metre track and field final), I’ll be thinking of the woman who was, for me, the greatest women’s singles player I have had the pleasure to watch, Steffi Graf and her Golden Slam.

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Tennis Bum2013-10-02 00:17:11
Sweet Steffi! Fondly remembered indeed.

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