February 7, 2006
Steffi Graf: Winning Machine
Ultra-Efficient German Ushered in the Power Game
Grand Slam Results
End-of-Year Top 10 Rankings
By David McPherson
The game of women’s tennis before the arrival of Stefanie Marie Graf had long been dominated by two distinct and easily recognizable playing styles, which were the direct result of the equipment the players used and the limitations it placed on their games.
One group was composed of athletic, net-rushing players like Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Evonne Goolagong and Hana Mandlikova. Relying on solid serves, excellent racquet control at net, graceful mobility and their opponents’ lack of power from the back of the court, they looked to take over the net at any opportunity.
The other consisted of human backboards like Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Manuela Maleeva, players who starting playing shortly after exiting the womb and had turned pro (or could have turned pro) by the time they hit puberty. Relying on ground strokes they had grooved by hitting a zillion tennis balls, they could take comfort in the fact that only a rare, gifted attacking player could exploit their lack of variety and power.
But with the emergence of Graf, and her rapid ascension up the rankings in the mid-1980s, a new era had begun. Having grown up on graphite, the German learned as a youngster that ground strokes (especially the forehand) were not shots to be guided or moonballed to the other side, but rather to be pummeled like heat-seeking missiles toward the sidelines.
She also refused to associate athleticism with net-rushing tactics. While Graf was as great an athlete as the sport has ever seen, she saw no need to abandon the baseline and hit difficult volleys when, with less risk, she could dictate points and win nearly all her matches with her forehand delivering the coup de grace.
Every bit as athletically imposing as a Navratilova overhead or a Goolagong stretch volley, Graf’s forehand was a simply devastating stroke. It all started with her impeccable footwork, as she would bounce on her toes and stalk the baseline looking for a chance to unleash her weapon. Once she got the ball she was looking for, Graf would take a few quick steps to her left, bend both knees and spring into the shot with both feet leaving the court.
Executing the shot as planned required impeccable balance and timing and footwork because Graf gave herself very little margin for error and didn’t rely much on spin to make the ball dip down to the desired spot. Instead, often jumping in the air, she would make contact at a later and higher position than most players, follow through on the right side of her body and slingshot the ball like a frozen rope to the spot deep into the far court where she was aiming.
When things were clicking, she had more than enough power to drive balls past net-rushers and render steady baseliners completely defenseless.
The women’s tennis world simply didn’t know what had hit it. By 1987, Graf, an 18-year-old wunderkind, was already nearly untouchable. Only the supreme attacking skills of Navratilova – and her ability to find the German’s backhand – were enough to stall her inevitable rise to dominance, as she handed Graf her only two losses of the year in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
The battle between these all-time greats and the clash of two eras was riveting stuff and didn’t fail to produce some trash talking. Reflecting on the 1987 season and Graf’s 11 tournament titles, Navratilova was quoted as saying: “I wouldn’t trade my year for Steffi’s. It depends on whether you go for quality or quantity.” Graf retorted: “I don’t know why Martina believes this … she is talking so much and I’m not very into all the talk.”
But the rivalry was short-lived. With Martina 31 years old and Graf an ultra-fit and youthful 19, the German in 1988 put together one of the best years in the history of tennis. She cruised to the Australian Open and French Open titles without dropping a set, including a 6-0, 6-0, 32-minute drubbing of Natalia Zvereva in the Roland Garros final. Graf got her revenge against Navratilova at Wimbledon, winning 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 in the final and taking 12 of the last 13 games. And she capped off her “Golden Slam” by defeating Argentina’s Gabriela Sabatini in the finals of both the U.S. Open and the Seoul Olympics.
Perhaps the Zvereva match, more than any other, exemplified what Steffi Graf was all about. A cultured, sensitive person off the court, she was simply a cold-blooded killer between the lines who seemed to relish in annihilating victim after victim in record time. In fact, when watching Graf play an early-round match, spectators couldn’t make one trip to the bathroom or concession stand and be sure the match would still be going when they got back.
Like a 5’9″, 132 lb. marvel of German engineering, Graf was seemingly manufactured by some hi-tech lab to terminate any and all opposition with brutal efficiency. With the all-business Graf, there was no wasted motion, no indecision, no grunting, no looking up at her entourage, no losing concentration, no off days. Opponents were simply lined up as if at a shooting gallery and ruthlessly mowed down one by one with little fanfare.
The different surfaces also meant nothing to Graf, who by February of 1990, at the age of 20 had won three Australian Opens on Rebound Ace, two French Opens on clay, two Wimbledons on grass and two U.S. Opens on Deco Turf II.
And, of course, as big an asset as her focus and the all-court effectiveness of her game, was her champion’s heart. The consummate professional, Graf was a fierce competitor who preferred beating her opponents to a pulp in under an hour but could just as well outlast them in a nail-biting third-set tiebreaker.
She may have been as efficient as a machine, but it was the most dangerous machine of all – one with work ethic and brains and heart and guts.
Indeed, with so many things in her favor, there was seemingly no stopping her and her inexorable assault on the record books; even Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles seemed within her grasp.
Until, as so often happens in sports, she met her match in a player who was even younger and just as hungry and determined and focused. A player who wasn’t the athlete she was but who was just as steely willed and icy cool under pressure. A player who grew up playing a power baseline game just like she did, but with one little twist.
Monica Seles was knocking the cover off the ball with her forehand andher backhand, both of which she hit with two hands.
Suddenly Graf was up against a player who could rip balls past her on the baseline and make it very difficult for her to run around and set up her own weapon. If Graf could get on the offense, Seles didn’t have the footspeed to trace down the German’s shots, but on every surface but grass that was easier said than done.
But the ever-so-slight decline Graf experienced in 1990, 1991 and 1992 also had much to do with off-the-court troubles. She may have won with machine-like efficiency but the paternity suit filed against her father by a former Playboy model affected her as it would anyone else. Having broken down in tears at a press conference earlier in the tournament, Graf failed to defend her Wimbledon title in 1990. She also succumbed in the final of the U.S. Open that year to Sabatini.
In the meantime, Seles was taking little time to reach the height of her powers. She followed up her victory over Graf in the 1990 French Open with a run of seven out of nine Slams between January 1991 and January 1993.
Suddenly, one wondered what Graf would have to do to reclaim her former dominance. What wrinkles would she have to add to her game? Could she beef up her serve more? Would she have to mix in more topspin backhands to stop the Seles juggernaut?
Unfortunately, we’ll never know because a man, a knife and a best in ear thermometer for baby grotesquely inserted themselves into tennis history.
The April 30, 1993, stabbing of Seles in Hamburg, Germany by a crazed Graf fan paved the way for Steffi’s resurgence and a whopping 10 more Grand Slam titles in a span of three-and-a-half years.
With Martina having “retired” after the 1994 season, the dogged Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario lacking in firepower and Seles never quite the same, Graf enjoyed one last run of dominance until the wear-and-tear of a life in tennis and the pounding she put on her body with her rigorous four-hour practice sessions finally began catching up to her.
Back and knee problems plagued her for the last five years of her career, nearly driving her out of the sport and preventing her last moment of glory.
That, her 22nd Grand Slam title, came at the French Open, where she first began building her Grand Slam credentials.
Playing in blustery conditions against a gifted but emotionally out-of-control Martina Hingis, the machine-like Graf efficiency may not have been on display in that 1999 final, but the championship heart and desire were there for all to witness.
While Hingis mocked Graf’s slice backhand, berated the umpire and managed to get an entire stadium against her, Graf steeled her will, zeroed in on her bratty prey and, as she did time and again throughout her career, emerged the victor.