from Sportstar (issue of July 16th, 1988)
by Nirmal Shekar
It had rained that morning. The sky was a mixture of grey, blue and black, quite unable to decide what should be its dominant mood for the afternoon. The patches of low lying clouds over Wimbledon were in a playful mood. They would allow the sun its brief moment of splendour before covering it. Down on the Centre Court of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, the moods were quite mixed too.
Like the clouds that seemed to know that they could obliterate the sun whenever they wanted to, Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia played out his own game within a game against Stefan Edberg in the men's singles semi-final.
The Czech wizard would allow Edberg one little advance and then he would move in for decisive kill. And most of the time Edberg was under a cloud anyway - under the cloud of Mecir's resplendent skills. But never as deeply as in the seventh game of the third set after Mecir had won the first two. Within moments of the start of the game, Edberg was down 0-40. The blues of despair were unmistakable. Before playing the next point, Edberg stared at the eczemic turf dominated by the brown patches of wear and tear. Then the Swede shook his head. It was an act conveying his disbelief.
Three days later, at 5.02 p.m. London time to be exact, Edberg shook his head again. Again it was a sense of disbelief. But what a difference! The man who had stood within a few points of losing to Mecir in the semifinal was now shaking his head unable to believe that he had won the most important tennis championship in the world. And what a transformation it was from Edberg. A man who has so long been under attack for his inability to raise his game when under pressure, for his lack of killer instinct, had at last - not a minute too early certainly - justified his potential against Boris Becker in a final that was plagued by the English weather.
Consistent: Playing against a man who had won the championship at age 17 and who had lost only one set this year before walking in for the final - and even that against the world champion - Edberg played some of the most consistently attacking tennis he has ever played in his career to take the match after losing the first set. "It is fantastic and I can't believe it," said the champion.
"It still hasn't sunk into my system yet," he said after becoming the first Swede to win the men's title at Wimbledon since Bjorn Borg edged John McEnroe in the match of the century in 1980.
Of course this was not Edberg's first Grand Slam title. He is a two time Australian Open winner. But it was always thought - and not without basis -that he tended to crack under pressure and did not have the steely nerves to win seven straight matches at the most prestigious championship in the world. In the past, men like Becker and Pat Cash have always appeared to be the better big match players while Edberg would throw it all away because he couldn't have the adrenalin flowing when he needed to. In the event, the general impression that Edberg lacked the kind of championship fibre that distinguished a Becker or a Connors was not off the mark.
It is just that the Swede has gone through a huge attitude change. And nowhere was that more evident than in the semifinal against Mecir and more importantly in the final against Becker when he stormed back from a set down. Edberg did just about everything that a great grass court champion should do. He served consistently well, he volleyed with devilish courage and most of all he despatched service return winners with tremendous accuracy and pace.
"He played great tennis," said Becker after the match. In the second set, Edberg slowly eased himself into the match before taking command in the tiebreak, running up a 5-0 lead that was insurmountable. The Swede then broke Becker in the third game of the third set and thereafter the West German was a frustrated man, throwing his racquet on turf and being warned by the umpire Gerry Armstrong. Even then it was not past Becker to get back into the match. But Edberg never gave him the opening ... He played with tremendous control in his service games and continued to make life miserable for Becker in his.
The fourth set was a no contest. He broke Becker twice before serving out for the championship. Becker netted a backhand on Edberg's first championship point. If it has been a West German sweep in the women's game this season, then the Swedish march continues too, with Wilander having won the first two majors and now Edberg claiming Wimbledon.
Stupefied: For a long time, on the day of the men's semi-finals, Edberg didn't seem capable of becoming the first Swede to play in the final here since Borg in 1981. The magic of Mecir's tennis left the Swede in a state of numb stupefaction and Mecir appeared well on his way to delightful, adding one more to his impressive collection of Swedish scalps.
Mecir spent the best part of April and May in the Czech wilderness, growing a beard and angling for choice fish - his favourite pastime - in the company of wife Potra and son Milos. Earlier in the year, at the Lipton International in Kay Biscayne, Mecir had developed a problem in his lower back and a rest was recommended by his doctors. He had to miss the French Open too. And in his first two matches at Wimbledon, on a surface he does not really care for, Mecir did look a little uncomfortable although he said that he was wearing an elastic corset only as a protection and his back was not bothering him at all. "The only problem is the way they pronounce my name here," he joked.
It is not much of a joke anyway for the men across the court when Mecir strikes rhythm, which he certainly did in the quarterfinal against Mats Wilander. It was a swift operation, as swift as a stilleto between the shoulder blades. And Wilander's fall from his Grand Slam dreamland was terrifyingly sudden too. Mecir is the master of deception. With him you can take nothing for granted. He is wonderfully gifted and dangerously mobile. He can make the opponent look this way and hit the other way. Anyway there was only one way that Wilander was looking - down the dark slope of disaster - in the match against the Czech. Things were not much better for Wilander's Davis Cup teammate Edberg either, in the semifinal. Before he realised what hit him, Edberg was down two sets and struggling to stay in the match in the third. Returning Edberg's big serves like noother player has done in these championships and passing the 6 ft. 2 in. Swede with almost ludicrous ease.
Mecir delighted the centre court crowd with his consummate artistry and touch. "There was nothing I could do. He was hitting winners everywhere," said Edberg, who has been living in London for the past five years. But the fact that Edberg did find something to do to arrest the trend speaks of his strength of will and character as a player.
Key to success: The key to Edberg's success was said to be his new mental attitude and the fact that he started serving more consistently and volleying with assurance after the first two sets.
This is true. But it is not the whole truth. For the enigmatic Mecir was unable to slot his game in the groove in which it found itself in the first two sets. The service returns that would skim the netting and race away for winners were now sailing wide or sending the ballboys scurrying across to pick up Mecir's errors.
The passing shots that once cleared the netting at incredible height were now sitters to be put away by a fiercely committed Edberg at the net. And most of all Mecir strangely seemed to lose interest - not that he looks particularly interested in the proceedings even when he is winning. Edberg saved six break points apiece in the third and fourth sets and came back from the brink to win the match. "Now you know," said Tony Pickard, Edberg's English coach from Nottingham. "Now you know that he is not chicken hearted. They said he didn't have fire in his belly. He proved whole lot of people wrong today. It is just a growing up process for him... growing up into a great champion."
In the moment of triumph, the 52-year-old Pickard, a former British Davis Cup player, could have been forgiven for that excess. But he has helped Edberg believe in himself and credit must go to the Englishman for that although there is very little he has done in the area or technique. Once, Edberg made his way to the final, Pickard was bigger news than Edberg understandably so. Not since Fred Perry over 50 years age has an Englishman been in the men's final, as one British tennis writer remarked, tongue in cheek, of course.
Boris Becker's route to the championship match was much easier at least up until the time he came upon a resolute Ivan Lendl - the top seed, in the semifinal. WhiJe Becker's straight set victories in his first four matches were not stuff that would cause eyebrows to be raised, the manner in which he moulded the defending champion and fourth seed Pat Cash, did kill it as a contest.
Belied expectations: It was a match billed as the "quarterfinal of the century" and the "final before the final." But Becker's brilliance, the high level of motivation that he showed and Cash's surprising inability to come to terms with the pressures of the big match and the demands it made on him saw the duel fizzle out into a no-contest. Last year, when he became the firstAustralian since Newcombe in 1971 to win Wimbledon, Cash had been a little lucky.
He had not met too many genuine serve and volleyers along the way. And since his big success last summer, Cash has done precious little. He has not won a tournament since November 1987 and he had lost to Darren Cahill (who is that?) in the Queen's Club tournament 10 days before the start of Wimbledon.
The match left nobody in any doubt as to who the superior grass court player was. While it should be said that Cash was not more than 60 per cent the player he was in the Wimbledon final against Lendl last year, it must also be accepted that Becker will take out Cash even (in a hypothetical situation) when the two are playing at their respective peaks.
Becker is certainly the greater all round player, more consistent and by far a better player on the big points. But the one time that Becker had trouble on the big points was in his match against a less than fully fit Lendl in the semifinal. Lendl had strained his left thigh muscle and he could not move and bend as well as he normally does. On the Friday night, after a late start, Becker seemed set to race to a straight sets win after taking the first two sets. Until then it was not the best of matches. A cold swirling wind bothered the players especially on the service toss and neither man was comfortable enough to play uninhibited tennis. As the more confident grass court player, Becker took advantage of Lendl's self doubts to score at the net himself and to pass the world champion with ease when Lendl ventured tentatively.
But the night climaxed in a dramatic third set tiebreak in which Lendl served three match points before finally winning it 8-10, after Becker had hit an easy forehand volley on match point into the net. Later, Lendl saved five more match points before Becker took the match on his ninth match point. Lendl later said that he still hadn't lost hope. "The fact that I've come so close so consistently means I can still do it," he said. Whether he could have done it if he had been fully fit is debatable. But he admitted that Becker was far too strong on grass and his style made it very difficult for him to win on the surface. Lendl has played nine Wimbledons so far and he is not getting any younger.
With the natural grass court players like Becker, Edberg and Cash showing no signs of losing their bite, it is going to be a near-impossible task for the world champion to win the one tournament that is so important to him. But then, Borg never won the US Open and McEnroe fell a step short of winning the French Open in 1984. So it may well be that Lendl is jinxed at Wimbledon.
Again jinxed or ill equipped is open to debate. But he is not a man who will give up. Now it appears he has plans to lay a grass court at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. "I pay £3.50 an hour. Any of you guys willing to help me out," he asked with one of those rare smiles of his press conference after losing to Becker. One wonders if he will trade a part of his millions for a Wimbledon title were it possible to do that. He seems desperate enough.
Authoritative: The English bookmakers know their game, know their tennis too. For the first time in several years their top favourite for the women's title was not Martina Navratilova. Considering the fact that Navratilova had not lost a match in singles play since losing to Hana Mandlikova in the semifinals in 1981, it may have appeared a curious choice to a few when Steffi Graf was installed as the top favourite. However, before the first week was gone, even the few doubters left were won over by the queen-to-be with some of the most authoritative grass court tennis any woman has ever played. Going into the final, Graf had not lost more than three games in the economical 12 sets she had played en route and none of her matches had lasted much more than an hour.
Coming into the 1987 championship after missing it owing to illness the earlier year, Graf had played great tennis all the way through to the final. But the clever experienced Navratilova exposed the chinks in the final.
It was a sort of tutorial that the great lady took on and the student assimilated the lessons well. Peter Graf, who once ran a tennis school in Bruhl in West Germany, is an ambitious man and one of the most intelligent tennis-parents. The moment his daughter lost to Navratilova last summer, he vowed to his friends and well wishers that Steffi would be back next year to do what she had failed to do (in 1987). Although she has been winning every big tournament in sight this year, Team Graf's chief priority of the season was Wimbledon. As early as in February, Peter Graf sought out a lefthanded pro in Bruhl to practise with his daughter. They concentrated on Steffi's backhand which Navratilova had exploited so well and so successfully last year at Wimbledon and at the US Open too.
The pratice partner was made to serve wide to Steffi's backhand and Pavel Slozil, her coach, and Peter Graf made notes and before long ironed out the flaws. The backhand is still not Steffi's strong point but the mistakes she makes on that flank perhaps stand magnified because of the inevitable comparison with the awesome forehand of hers. She wreaks more havoc with her forehand than Ivan Lendl. And it is such a flexible shot she can do almost anything with it and no wonder that she often runs around her backhand to make way for the forehand kill. It was not until late in the first set in the final against Navratilova did Steffi seem vulnerable for the first time in the championships. With Navratilova standing guard at the net, the 19-year-old West German seemed a bit shaken. But quickly she regained her poise and stormed her way back into the match.
Shifting gear: Just when the scenario began to appear vaguely familiar with Navratilova once again putting things together in the most important match, Graf snatched the brush of genius out of the eight time champion's hand to paint her own picture. And in bold, violent strokes she turned a canvas that had borne the Navratilova name for so long into her own. "When I was serving for the first set I was not aggressive enough," Graf would say later. "After losing the first set and my first service game in the second set, I was angry with myself. I wanted to show that I can play much better." 'Better' would be an understatement in describing the level to which Graf lifted her game from 0-2 in the second set. With uncanny poise and resoluteness, she hunted her prey remorselessly, showing extraordinary speed and power.
There were times when Navratilova had to step out of the way instinctively to avoid being hit by a Graf bullet. She was cracking winners out of a dream and Navratilova was going through the kind of nightmare she has never before experienced at Wimbledon. There was a brief spell, when Navratilova broke Graf'ss nine-game streak to take the fourth game of the decider, during which it appeared that one would wake up from the dream and the other from the nightmare. Neither did. Graf still does not have the volleying skills of Navratilova. She may never have it. But her serve is more powerful and more consistent now than a year ago and she volleys a whole lot better while using the angles well. But it is her confidence that is so tough to break.
Navratilova rummaged through the library of memory to try and see if she can come up with something, anything, to stem the tide. But at age 31, giving 12 years to her opponent, whatever Martina came up with was not enough. Navratilova tried just about everything. With Graf on the baseline she would play a drop, with the West German pushed wide on one side she would go for the other corner. But this was a day when Graf travelled on invisible wheels, on high speed diesel oil. She simply moved from one gear to another as if on auto transmission. "I am sure I can raise my level higher. I am going to need another two or three years to be able to do a few things I needed to do today. I have to come in a bit more. I have a good volley and I never used it. So I have to continue to do that and many other things," said Graf.
Already the gap between her and the rest at the top in the women's game is fast widening. And if she continues to play at this peak or maybe climb higher as she hopes to, the other women on the WTA tour can as well plan their year ahead deciding to share the crumbs. Graf has now won three of the four majors of the season and the way she is going it is not going to be easy for Navratilova or anyone else to deny her the Grand Slam at the US Open. Navratilova was the last woman to win four majors in a row but she did not do it in one calendar year. The last to do that was Margaret Court in 1970. "Everybody is talking about it (the Grand Slam)," said Graf. "But I still have to concentrate on every single tournament. I will think about it only when I get to Flushing Meadow," she said. But the others, her rivals, can start thinking about it right now. Not that it will help.
Ruthless: In the semifinals, Graf had simply stamped out Pam Shriver's challenge. It was a repeat of the '87 semifinal and Shriver was hardly in the match as the West German champion blasted forehand winners like a maniac firing a machine gun. Shriver is not the best mover on a tennis court and she is rather awkward when positioning herself for the shots, although it should be said that she played this tournament with a glandular fever.
Then again, this championship was all about Graf fever, not glandular fever or even the hay fever that struck a few other women stars. Navratilova's path to the final had not been as easy. Rosalyn Fairbank, an aggressive blonde from South Africa who hates to be called a South African (she is afraid her nationality might evoke anti-apartheid protests) and lives for the most part in the US came very close to going down in history as the woman who stopped Navratilova at Wimbledon. Fairbank was in command through most part of that quarterfinal match against the listless Navratilova and it took a lot out of the champion to prevent that particular piece of history getting into print.
Navratilova played her best in the semifinal against her friend and great rival Chris Evert. Evert herself had hit a peak with a fluent win over Helena Sukova in the quarterfinals and seemed determined to stop Navratilova with a superb comeback. If Navratilova was making great volleys then Evert played some breathtaking passing shots to frustrate Navratilova at the net. "She was passing the best she has ever done against me," Navratilova said. The match was every inch the thriller that the 1987 semifinal between these two was. But it climaxed on a rather inappropriate note when a Chris forehand appeared to hit the line and was called 'out.' Chris had saved two match points and would have taken the game to deuce if the ball had been called good. After a bit of hesitation Richard Lumb, the chair umpire, who had muttered almost under his breath "game, set and match" earlier on, finally called the match for Navratilova.
Close call: There were suggestions that, in the light of her relationship with Evert, Navratilova should have asked Lumb to give the point to Evert. Some even saw Navratilova as a poor sport and one leading sports editor in London chose to use strong words. "A spoilt rich girl," he called Navratilova. That was very cruel. After all, Navratilova had nothing to do with what the linesman did. And it was a close call and he - the linesman - was in the best position to judge. Navratilova only played to the call. Chris herself was all grace when she said after the match: "I don't blame Martina. It is not as if the linesman called the ball good and she protested. It was a tight match and I don't blame her at all." In hindsight, Chris must have been secretly happy that she had not stopped Navratilova in the semifinal. It is not the most exciting job standing across the court from Stefff Graf in a Grand Slam final... or even looking forward to doing that.
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