Graf – Seles 1990 Berlin – when the German wall of women’s tennis fell at Berlin

I 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 sorted out Graf. The latter match saw Graf veer to the precipice of an ignominious choke before rallying back brilliantly to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

But Berlin 1990 is where the troubles really began for the German who had dominated women’s tennis in the late 80s. Domination isn’t the word. Graf won her first slam at the French Open in 1987, followed it up with an unparalleled-in-the-graphite-era feat of four slams in a single year along with the Olympic gold in 1988 and won a further three slams in 1989. She also defended her Australian Open title for the second year running in 1990. She had ascended to no.1 on Aug 17, 1987 and was still the reigning no.1 when she met Seles at the German Open final in Berlin, 1990. She would only relinquish the no.1 spot on Mar 11, 1991…to Seles.

I chose to write about this match because over the years, Graf’s personal troubles concerning the blackmailing scandal have come to be attributed for this loss, with Graf herself voicing this narrative in an interview with Peter Bodo. However, that is not what I saw when I re-watched the match recently and further I spotted Seles exploiting some of the same patterns of play she would in future wins over Graf.

Coming into this match, Graf had won every match in the tournament in straight sets. She had also been undefeated all year up to that point, winning the Australian Open, Tokyo, Amelia Island and Hamburg. Thus, there was no sign yet that anybody was about to shake up her stranglehold over women’s tennis. Which is not the same thing as to say there was no sign yet that Graf’s level was more vulnerable than in 1988 or 89.

Graf won the Australian Open final that year in straight sets over Mary Joe Fernandez who was contesting her first slam final. But the affair wasn’t as comfortable for Graf as a straight sets score would suggest. Looking at this highlights reel would give you an indication of how laboured the match really was.

If that does not convince you, examining the stats for the match should. Graf made 29 unforced errors against 20 winners. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that Fernandez made the same number of errors against just 10 winners. It was a match in which both players hit not a lot of winners for a lot of errors.

There was then something sluggish and a tad erratic about 1990 Graf. So, no, it didn’t have much to do with the blackmail scandal and if I had to guess, I would explain it as fatigue catching up with Graf; she had worked herself to death to keep winning and ’90 was the first year tennis seemed to feel like a job for her. So why would Graf attribute that to the Seles loss at the German Open? Maybe because what she already saw left her apprehensive? Maybe because it was a convenient explanation retrospectively to adroitly deny the possible impact Seles’ stabbing could have had on her (Graf’s) career?

At any rate, watching Graf quickly win the first two games of the match, you see in fact the picture of regal confidence. Watch her swat the spare ball away at 26:45 after winning the last point of the game with a volley. Yup, there was, if anything, a swagger about her that day. As if telling the upstart Seles to bring it on.

Unfortunately for Graf, Seles did bring it on.

The ways in which Seles troubled her were both tactical and mental.

At both 51:24 and 51:50, Seles showed the courage to attack Graf’s forehand corner. Graf couldn’t get the ball past the net on the first occasion and on the second, produced a short lob that Seles hit a smash winner off. The conventional wisdom had been that one must attack Graf’s backhand because her forehand was so strong. But Seles was able to catch Graf moving to protect her backhand corner. You can hear the commentator point this out too. This used to make it hard for Graf to respond in time to fast and deep shots into her forehand corner, even with her being so quick on her feet. Seles exploiting this had the additional benefit of weakening Graf’s confidence in her forehand. As you can see in this match too, she often pressed and made wild errors at times on her forehand. 37:20 being a particularly bad one.

Seles also found that because Graf had such late preparation on her forehand, she could be rushed if forced to hit on the rise repeatedly. The point at 47:50 demonstrates this. At the first time of asking, Graf converts the half volley with a high but deep forehand. But Seles keeps up the pressure and asks the question again and this time, Graf blows it long. Seles’ brilliant ability to step inside the baseline and hit early and hard repeatedly meant that Graf wasn’t too comfortable engaging her in baseline arm-wrestles. In my post on the Australian Open match, I mentioned an example of Graf losing precisely such an arm-wrestle rally when she mistimed a forehand and let Seles get on top from thereon.

Seles also showed brilliant anticipation which resulted in her winning points in positions where Graf was used to winning the point herself. At 41:10, Seles is caught midcourt as Graf takes on her forehand squash slice with a topspin backhand. A shot she rarely uses so the unpredictability combined with Seles’ awkward court position should have done the job. And yet, Seles reaches at the ball with a one handed forehand and finds the open court for a winner!

Seles was also able to drag Graf wide on the backhand side and open the court up for a winner. So it wasn’t as if she gave Graf a pass on the backhand wing. No, rather, the pressure was relentless from both sides.

Which brings me to the mental aspect of it. Seles brought to bear a different kind of pressure from what Graf had been used to until then. She was used to serve and volley pressure from Navratilova, Shriver or even Sabatini on occasion. Sabatini also engaged her in grinding rallies from the baseline but Sabatini rarely hustled her or shrunk her response time. In those situations, Graf could afford to be patient and wear Sabatini down.

She could also count on the likes of Sabatini to capitulate under pressure on important points. Why, even Navratilova lost the US Open final of 1989 from a commanding position in the second set (having already won the first).

But Seles was both relentless and fearless. The onslaught of fast and deep balls on both sides forced Graf to hit on the rise way more than she enjoyed, forced her to respond sooner than was her wont. She also couldn’t count on Seles to crumble under break point pressure or choke away an advantageous position. If anything, these were the situations in which Seles seemed to thrive and produce her best.

One other tactical piece combined with the above to make Seles already an unique threat for Graf in 1990 – her returning. Graf had a great first serve but her second serve was decent, just getting the job done. Seles pounced on every weak-ish second serve, either hitting return winners or forcing the error anyway. This made Graf doubly anxious on her serve and she ended up conceding serve way more than she liked.

And so it was that after sprinting to a commanding 2-0 lead in the first set, Graf gradually disintegrated as Seles won 6-4 6-3 in barely over an hour.

One does not know if the blackmail scandal still weighed on Graf’s mind when she reached the French Open final later in the same month without dropping a set – only to lose yet again to Seles in straight sets!

While Seles would not win any more slams that year, neither did Graf. Graf also lost at the US Open as well as Virginia Slims finals to Sabatini that year, opening up a period where Sabatini kind of owned Graf.

Not just Sabatini – Novotna, Sanchez, lots of players began to bother Graf in 1991. Somehow, Graf won her only two encounters with Seles that year (neither of them coming at the slams) and with relative ease at that.

But the damage had already been done. Even when she wasn’t playing Seles, Graf no longer had the steely invulnerability, the quiet but cocky confidence of the late 80s. She could and did lose her rhythm frequently and found herself descending into a string of errors that would often lead to her expressing her frustration with herself rather vocally on court. It was finally in 1995 that Graf showed the clutch and wiliness of old as she prevailed in tough matches at the slams again and again (including against Seles at the US Open where Graf bounced back from a 6-0 drubbing in the second set).

That was then. But after the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, 1990 saw the fall of the German wall of tennis. In the space of a few weeks in May, Seles ended the reign of the once indomitable and utterly undisputed champion of women’s tennis.

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