Thursday, August 21, 2008

Deep Tennis: Golden Age

As the players make the long, rushed journey from the Olympics to the U.S. Open this week, it seems an opportune moment to reflect on the first player to win those two events in the same year. This was Steffi Graf, of course, the owner of the most remorselessly successful career the modern game has seen. Nearly 10 years after her sudden retirement, however, that career has begun to seem just the slightest bit neglected—not forgotten, exactly, but less remarked upon than an historian of the game might expect.

Twenty years ago, Graf pulled off, if not the greatest, then certainly the most unique achievement in tennis history. In 1988 she won all four Grand Slams and topped them with a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics. At the time, her Golden Slam was a unique example of dominance on every important stage in the game. That’s still true—let’s face it, no one is going to do that again in our lifetime. But what feels equally unique in 2008, a year when Yannick Noah’s 1983 French Open win was widely memorialized, is the fact that the anniversary of Graf’s far greater accomplishment hasn’t, as far as I’ve seen, merited any attention at all.

In a sense, that’s only fair. Tennis fans and media hold Graf at a distance because she always held them the same way. Chris Evert was a beloved girl next door to everyone in America by the time she was 16. Martina Navratilova has wished and worked for acceptance from the people of her adopted country for most of her life. Monica Seles became an instant figure of sympathy when she was, you know, stabbed. Today these women are well-loved WTA icons. Graf? She was the Blonde Bomber, Fräulein Forehand. She stomped all over girls-next-door for a living, never wished for the acceptance of anyone outside of her family, and wouldn’t have had the faintest idea of what to do with your sympathy if you offered it.

I loved to watch Graf play, particularly in her early years, when she marched—that’s what it looked like she was doing between points, marching—straight to the top of the game when she was 18. We’re the same age, and along with her now-husband Andre Agassi, Graf was the first champion whom I could identify with as a generational peer, as one of my own. In the mid-80s, I relished seeing Graf stand up to Navratilova’s overweening sense of entitlement (and eventually surpass her career singles achievements) the same way I enjoyed seeing the “punk” Agassi toy with the “legend” Connors at the U.S. Open.

I heard Graf’s name before I ever saw her play. At the 1985 French Open, Chris Evert was interviewed after winning her semifinal. She had just defeated a much-hyped 15-year-old named Gabriela Sabatini, but it was a girl named Steffi Graf, whom she had played earlier in the tournament, that she seemed most pleased about beating. Evert knew who the real threat was, but I doubt she realized the extent of that threat. The next spring, in the final at Hilton Head, Graf beat Evert for the first time. She would go on to win their last seven meetings, six of them in straight sets. The year after that, in Miami, Graf didn’t just beat Evert, she blitzed her 6-1, 6-2 and showed the legend once and for all that there was no path left back to the top. The future was here. It hit hard. It ran fast. It showed no mercy.

I was shocked by how badly, how viciously Graf beat Evert that day. Frankly, it was a thrill. In the past, the German, even when she was winning big events, hadn’t had a fully developed game. For every roundhouse forehand she rifled into the corner, there was a tentative slice backhand that she dumped in the net. Now, at 18, Graf’s choppy backhand didn’t seem to hurt her anymore. She may not have been flawless, or even technically all that sound, but it was clear that that wasn’t going to matter. She was going to be too fast and too powerful for everyone else. Beginning with that rout of Evert, Graf played the next two years like a whirlwind, running rings around her opponents and sweeping them off the court before they knew what had happened.

These were golden years for Graf. She had vanquished Navratilova for the moment, and her personal troubles, as well as the rise of Seles, remained on the horizon. In 1988 Graf won the Grand Slam, then added three more majors in ’89. How did she become so dominant in so short a time? At first glance, you would have thought she was too raw to win so consistently. Her service toss was too high, she took her forehand too late, she hacked her backhand and couldn’t come over it when she got nervous. Everything looked rushed, as if she had too much energy for the court and was on the verge of overrunning each ball.

But Graf did dominate, and it was her athletic energy that overcame any flaws. She did it with a flying, flopping mane of blonde hair and the best legs—in form and function—the game has seen. She did it by moving as if her feet were bouncing on hot coals. She did it by throwing her body into the ball as if she needed to end each point now. She did it by overwhelming her opponents with her relentless tempo—the term “playing like she’s double-parked” was invented for Graf, and she was the last top player to keep a ball in her off-hand during points.

Most of all, she did it with her forehand. To call this shot—with its late preparation, high take-back, and explosive contact—a “stroke” is too tame. To say that, like Ivan Lendl before her, she changed the sport with it, is too boring. The only way I can describe Graf’s forehand is to say that she wielded it like a weapon. Not in the metaphorical sense, the way we say a certain player has “a lot of weapons,” but in a very real sense. She looked like she was trying to hurt the ball with it.

Why was Graf so exciting to watch in the late ’80s? She was attractive, even sexy at times, and I didn’t mind the famous nose. But it was the way she used her body that mattered. More than any other player, Graf played with total abandon during points, then closed herself off and went into a hard shell of concentration between them. Graf didn’t come from wealth—her father Peter, a tennis freak who began training her in the family rec room when she was 3—was a salesman. Still, her on-court presence— total excellence mixed with a reticence that bordered on the haughty—made me think of her as tennis’ version of an aristocrat. A friend of mine’s mom called her “Starchy Steffi,” but I thought this was a sign of class. She had too much of it to worry about what anyone thought of her.

That detached style, which I eventually realized was a product of a stunted early social life as much as it was a sign of class, would come back to haunt Graf in the second half of her career. After Seles was stabbed by a crazed Graf fan, Steffi was widely scolded for not reaching out to her rival. It seemed cold indeed, though I’m guessing Graf didn’t know what to say, that she thought the situation was too emotionally fraught for any token gesture to make a difference. (I don’t remember what Graf’s public explanation was, if she had any.) Still, I lost a little of my fan’s love for her as she went on to rack up many more major titles—more, most likely, than she would have if Seles hadn’t been stabbed. By the mid-90s, her dominance almost seemed too easy. Two players, Jana Novotna at Wimbledon and Martina Hingis at the French Open, handed Graf majors on silver platters. More important, Graf didn’t seem to take any joy from the game or the tour aside from winning. Always a step removed from her peers, she ruled the WTA but wasn’t of it.

Was Steffi a cold fish? Does she deserve the lack of retrospective attention her accomplishments have been given, because she didn’t give the sport enough of herself in the first place? Was her success the result of a frightening, single-minded drive to grind her opponents into the dust, to hurt the ball? I was ambivalent for a while. Graf had tried to console Novotna at Wimbledon, but she had seemed to revel in Hingis’ tear-stained meltdown at Roland Garros, showing more joy in that victory than I’d ever seen from her before.

It was Graf’s induction into the Hall of Fame in Newport that helped make up my mind. Agassi, another another tennis prodigy with a love-hate relationship with the sport, inducted his wife with a classic, over-the-top tribute that was widely replayed. But it was Graf’s opening lines from a few moments later that I remember. She said that her entire tennis career had been worthwhile only because it had led her to Agassi. Strong words, but it wasn’t the sentiment as much as the way she expressed it and how much she was moved that made me think that I’d missed the real reason for Graf’s greatness.

Tennis is a sport of heart and emotion, we always say, a test of our emotional reserves. So it makes sense that, somewhere down there, the very best tennis player would have the deepest well of emotion from which to draw. Graf had it all along. How else could she have gotten those feet to bounce like that for all those years? How else could she have turned such a strange-looking forehand into the most lethal shot in history? What we think of as raw athletic ability doesn’t just come from the body; it comes from something inside as well. Twenty years ago, Graf dug down deep enough to produce the best season in tennis history—in an interview that TENNIS Magazine just did with her, she said that when she won the final point of the U.S. Open in 1988 to complete the Slam, she was so drained that she doubted she could have played another point. Would you have ever guessed that from Steffi Graf?

In this season of non-dominance on the women’s side, it’s worth remembering exactly what it takes to be a champion, to be the undisputed best, to win all the time. That’s worth a tribute, isn’t it?

Source : by Steve Tignor