Graf at Wimbledon ’91 – reluctant champion cheats death

Tennis is an intensely personal sport.  It’s played one-on-one (in the singles format) and the time taken between serves and between games gives enough breathing space for the audience to soak in the tension the players are going through.  With close up cam, we get to look at their feelings, their body language in brutal detail too. It thus offers a level of drama that other racquet sports like badminton or table tennis do not, hence its exalted popularity compared to them.

As a corollary, the most engaging matches aren’t always the most ‘high level’ ones, the ones with entire sets full of highlight reel worthy points, but the ones with a lot of drama, with a lot of emotions at stake.  For context:  no, I am a recreational tennis player, not a couch potato.  I am sorry if somehow the above formulation makes me a philistine but when I watch a match, I wear my viewer hat and it’s not only about the quality of the shotmaking or the tactical ins and outs.

Let’s talk about a match now that wasn’t the most superlative on quality but full of emotional context.  It is arguably one of the most important slam bouts of Steffi Graf’s long and storied career.  I am talking about the 1991 Wimbledon final where she prevailed over Gabriela Sabatini.  Final set score of 6-4 3-6 8-6.

Drill down into the break points saved numbers of the third set and you will get why it was so dramatic.  Sabatini saved none of four break points and Graf saved one of four.

Graf broke Sabatini in her very first service game of the third set but conceded it right back.  There was an interlude of service holds up to 4-4 at which point Sabatini broke Graf and served for the championship only to be broken.  Graf, however, failed to hold her own serve and offered Sabatini yet another chance to serve out the championship.  She failed, yet again.  This time, Graf held her serve and proceeded to break Sabatini to win the championship.

That’s as far as the drama is concerned.  To understand why the context mattered so much, we have to rewind a little and look at the juncture Graf found herself in going into this match.

The Graf of 1991 was a far cry from the one who notched up 9 slams from French Open 1987 to 1990 Australian Open.  The signs that the juggernaut was about to reach an end were already apparent in that Australian Open campaign as Graf produced a rather laboured performance in the final, while still seeing off Mary Joe Fernandez in straight sets.

By Berlin ’90, her form suffered further still and Monica Seles, who had already bothered her in their 1989 French Open encounter, bested her at both Berlin and, later, at French Open. A tough loss to a resurgent Zina Garrison followed.  After which, the match that really precipitated the nightmare phase – a straight set loss to Sabatini at the US Open final.  Graf’s whopping unforced errors count of 35 says it all.

That loss inaugurated a stunning streak of losses suffered by Graf at the hands of Sabatini.  Ok, not quite, as Graf beat her at Zurich and at Virginia Slims.  But thereafter, in five straight matches, all in 1991, Sabatini beat her.

Graf wasn’t having a happy time outside of this unexpectedly difficult phase in their rivalry either.

She managed to beat Novotna…at choking and lost a tough three setter at the Australian Open, losing in the quarters for the first time since ’88 and bringing an end to her reign as the three time champion (as well as defending champion) of that slam.

Worse followed at French Open where she coasted to the semis, helped by an easy draw, only to win just two games in a humiliating straight set loss to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario that included a bagel in the first.

So, coming into Wimbledon, the once invincible champion of women’s tennis, the first player (and only to date) to win all four slams in the same year since Margaret Court, appeared to be besotted by diffidence and a mental fragility hitherto not exhibited by her.  It seemed like Graf was a reluctant champion.

After all, Graf was famously shy even during those years of crushing dominance.  Nor was she known to be demonstrative on the court.  If she was, she was usually negatively demonstrative, admonishing herself for mistakes.  But she usually only exulted, say by way of raising her fist, after winning the match and kept it all in till then. And rarely did she smile.  It was if winning was but a job for her.  And bogged down by a combination of poor form, competition catching up with her and personal distractions, the job had become too taxing for her. Or so it seemed.

Cut to 5-6 in the third set, Graf receiving in a must win game to salvage the championship.

At 1:59:40 in the video posted above, Sabatini serving at 30-30.  Graf steps in for the return but it’s a bit too close to Sabatini’s racquet and she blocks it down the line.  Graf has to scramble back to hit a slice and Sabatini uses the opportunity to approach cross court with her own slice. Sensing that Graf will run around to hit a forehand, Sabatini covers well and hits a volley into the open court.  But before it dies, Graf, sprinting across the length of the baseline, stretches to make a down the line forehand pass.  Because the ball is dying on her, she has to dig it out and her pass loops high.  Sabatini makes a high backhand volley off it.

Once again, Sabatini neither gets it to die on the other side of the net nor quite out of Graf’s reach and Graf digs it out with a beautiful drop-slice.  Note that Graf has got to the ball even before Sabatini can recover position from her backhand volley.  And so, Sabatini can’t get to the drop slice at all and it’s break point.  And it is then that Graf raises her left arm with a single finger outstretched in exultation. Her head remains down but there is now a determination in her eyes.

Graf has to serve at 6-6, hoping to hold serve and get into a set-score lead that can be vital in the dying stages of the last set.  In a tough service game, she gets to 40-30.  Point starts at 2:03:27.  After Graf directs a few forehands to Sabatini’s backhand, she changes the play with a skidding slice.  Sabatini reacts with a slice-approach off it, again directed to Graf’s backhand.  It’s a deep approach and Graf, running around her backhand, has to get a couple of feet away from the baseline only to still find herself cramped.

Even so, she makes a screamer of an inside out forehand pass with Sabatini a long way away from it even when she was covering that angle.  This time, when Graf raises her left arm again in exultation, she holds her head high and exults loudly too.  She also permits herself a toothy smile as she walks over to the chair for change of ends, the pressure firmly back on Sabatini.

Even if reluctantly, Graf embraces the part of being champion.  It is as if she instinctively realises that the only way to get out of this jam is to show some ‘swag’ and impose herself.

Sabatini played a timid game at 6-7 and found herself down double championship points.  Serving at 2:07:48.  Graf whacks a forehand winner off her timid serve and leans back before raising the left hand (again) with a big smile on her face.  But the most dramatic gesture is Graf’s parents kissing each other for quite a while, overcome by emotion.

Some players would have been thrilled to win a slam title in the sixth slam after the previous one.  For Graf and her parents, that wait had clearly felt unbearable. The celebration, then, was tinged with relief.  If at all Graf had harboured any doubts over whether she still wanted the burdensome mantle of tennis champion, she had now clearly decided she wanted it by extricating a win from the jaws of defeat…and on two occasions in the same set at that.

Had Graf lost in a tight third set here too, there’s no saying how things would have shaped up for her. It’s possible that a loss here would have sent her spiraling into deeper self doubt and diffidence.  As it happened, this win brought Sabatini’s streak of success against her to an end.

In their first two meetings of 1992, Sabatini prevailed again.  But the circumstances were different now. Graf was just coming off an injury-induced hiatus that had forced her to miss the Australian Open.  Losses to Sabatini at Miami and Amelia Island did not deter Graf from a strong showing at the French Open where she lost in a tight third set to Seles.

And this time, rather than feeling disheartened by the loss, Graf came into Wimbledon newly resurgent and mounted a vintage campaign.  While Graf produced many great slam campaigns after that one, that may have been one of the last glimpses we got of her delightfully exaggerated split step.  At Wimbledon 1992, Graf was simply omnipresent on the court; opponents couldn’t get a ball past her.  Sabatini fared no better as she lost 3-6 3-6 to Graf.  After this loss, Sabatini never won again against Graf.

But the tide turned not at the 1992 Wimbledon but the previous year.  If Graf regained badly needed self-belief, Sabatini seemed to lose hers.  While Sabatini did reach plenty more semi finals, she never reached a grand slam final again after Wimbledon ’91.  And her US Open triumph over Graf proved to be her first and only slam win over Graf in their long rivalry.

Graf grasped ascendancy in a rivalry where she was getting hammered by digging deep and embracing at least temporarily the superficial trappings of a champion tennis player.  The exultation, the swagger, the jubilation.   That makes this particular Wimbledon final more memorable than many others on either side of it.

One Response to “Graf at Wimbledon ’91 – reluctant champion cheats death”

  1. Graf – Seles 1990 Berlin – when the German wall of women’s tennis fell at Berlin | Pictured life Says:

    […] have written previously about the Graf-Seles Australian Open 1993 final and the Graf-Sabatini 1991 Wimbledon final. The former match left the Graf-Seles rivalry at a tantalizing juncture, where Seles seemed to have […]

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