Article by Barry Lorge, June 1990
At the Baden Tennis Center in the Heidelberg suburb of Leimen, the most productive of 13 regional training facilities operated by the West German Tennis Federation, coach Boris Breskvar finishes hitting with three youngsters and invites a visitor into his office. The wall behind his office is covered with photos, a couple of which he points with particular pride. There he is with Steffi Graf and Boris Becker at the European junior championships in 1981. And five years earlier, a group photo of the Baden kids, when Steffi had just turned 7 and Becker was a lad of 8. Surely another picture is destined for this gallery. Graf and Becker, at 20 and 21, posing together last July, after she won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon for the second straight year and he captured the men’s crown he held in 1985 and ’86. If you perused newstands in Germany the week after this extraordinary “Deutschland Doppel,” they dominated the covers. One magazine even had them dressed in full regalia like king and queen.
Before last Wimbledon, Becker and his girlfriend, Karen Schultz, went out for dinner with Graf and her coach, Pavel Slozil. Becker and Graf also met a couple of times during the tournament and talked.
“In other tournaments, we saw each other and said hello and that was it,” Graf says. “This was the first time we communicated more than before, and we both came out as the winner. Afterward, we hugged. It was a great moment for both of us because we have known each other quite a while.”
A fairytale come true, Becker says, “I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls, so when I was almost 9 and she was 7, I all the time had to hit with her. From then on we more or less went through the same tournament and matches and we all the time kept a relationship… It’s impossible to think something like this can happen.”
GRATIFYING: It was particularly gratifying for Breskvar, who worked with Graf occassionally, and coached Becker daily, from the time they were barely out of kindergarten until they were teenagers. He had them hit against each other – not only because Graf was the top girl in Baden and Becker the runt of the region’s promising boys, but also because he saw in them similar stuff of champions.
“Steffi was (an) exceptional talent, and also mentally very, very strong,” he says. “She was never afraid. You know when it’s 5-all in the final set, they are all afraid a bit. They push the ball a little. Not Steffi and Boris. They were never afraid. They also lost matches, 5-7 in the third set, but they never pushed their shots. Also, they liked to compete.”
Breskvar, 47, who played internationally for his native Yugoslavia and has been employed by the German and Baden federations for 18 years, was at Wimbledon the second week of last year’s tournament with a team of German juniors. He watched the men’s final at Centre Court, guest of Becker’s Romanian manager – Svengali, Ion Tiriac, an old friend from their touring days.
An outgoing, expressive man with burning brown eyes, Breskvar saw Graf and Becker hold their trophies aloft and thought back to the kids on his wall. “For a coach,” he says, “this is a super feeling, something really special.” Becker grew up in Leimen, a town of 20,000 previously best known for producing cement. His home was less than a mile from the Blau-Weiss (blue-white) Tennis Club, whose indoor courts are now called Boris Becker Halle. Becker started hitting against a wall at the age of 5. After the Baden centre was built across the street in 1976, he practised there almost exclusively. Boris’ father, architect Karl Heinz Becker, designed both the tennis centre and Breskvar’s house. The coach discovered young Boris at a talent search at Heidelberg Schwarz and Geld (Black and Gold) Club in 1974, and worked with him for 10 years.
When Becker was 16, Breskvar turned him over to Gunther Bosch, a Romanian born friend of Tiriac; it was a year before Becker became the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon.
“His father told me, ‘Take care of my boy, and I don’t interfere. You must do everything,” Breskvar says. “Before he went to Bosch, he asked me three times to travel and coach Boris. I told him I prefer to stay in Leimen. I don’t want my boss to be one young guy. Nothing against Boris, who is a very good friend, but I prefer to work with a lot of juniors.” Breskvar’s relationship with Graf is decidedly cooler. She is from Bruhl, a town of 14,000 a few miles northwest of Leimen, closer to industrial Mannheim. In his instructional book – Boris Becker’s Tennis : The Making of a Champion, which has been published in Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan, England and Holland- Breskvar recalled his introduction.
“She was only 6 when she first came to us, but she already had a fairly reasonable technique. She had learned the basics from her father, who was a tennis coach . I can clearly recall the first time we met. Peter Graf came up to me and said, ‘I’ve found out as much as I can about you, and I think you’re the right man to train Steffi – because one day she’s going to be No.1 in the world.
“I don’t think I can be blamed for assuming that I was talking to yet another of these ambitious fathers who think the whole world is just waiting to see their child play. By the time we (had) completed the half-hour training session, I was greatly impressed, and inwardly asked Peter Graf to forgive me for thinking ill of him, for Steffi really did have talent.”
Her father groomed Graf’s game and is still her principal advisor, although former Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player Slozil also travels and hits with her. Breskvar believes that the Baden centre played more of a part in Graf’s ascent than the family is willing to admit. Steffi says: “My coach was my father. When he didn’t have so much time because he was giving lessons himself, I went to the centre. I played there until I was 12 or 13 – maybe 15 or 20 times a year.”
ENERGETIC: Breskvar is an energetic lefthander who puts an intriguing variety of spins on tennis balls and converses in 6 languages (German, English, French, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and his native Slovenian). He does not dwell in the past, which in his case includes being the third man on Yugoslav Davis Cup teams that featured two players ranked in the world’s top 10, Nikki Pilic (now the German Davis Cup captain) and Zeljko Franulovic. At the Baden centre, he has a number of promising prospects, including Anke Huber, 13, already the best junior girl in Germany and Romanian defector Mirela Vadulescu, 12, who has moved to Leimen with her family and was signed to a contract by Tiriac last year. Breskvar smilingly predicts, “they will be playing each other in the Wimbledon final in five years.” These days, however, the coach happily obliges frequent requests to reminisce about Graf and Becker. They were both exposed early to a sophisticated programme that incorporates not only traditional training in technique and tactics, but also physical and psychological conditioning. Breskvar works closely with Prof. Hermann Reider, director of the Sports Science Institute at Heidelberg’s celebrated university.
“For five years he helped me with Boris and Steffi, making psychological tests, motivational tests, studies,” Breskvar says. “He agrees with me that it is very important to train children not only in tennis, but in other ball sports.” Breskvar points to basketball hoops and goals for football and field hockey on an area paved in asphalt, adjacent to the four red clay courts at his centre. Here players develop their sense of space, movement and what is possible to do with a ball and bodies. “We play these sports a lot, as well as sprints and jumps and other athletic drills for conditioning,” Breskvar says. “I think this is very important when children are 9,10,11, because you must play a lot of combinations in your head. How to beat the opponent, move, set up a score. If you can transfer this to tennis, you can improve a lot. Steffi is a wonderful basketball player. Boris is good in basketball and very, very strong in football.”
Breskvar encourages an all court game, with particular emphasis on the style for which a given player is suited by physique and personality. “We take all the children to a medical centre and make an X-ray here,” he says, pointing to the wrist, “so we can see how tall they will be when they grow up. We can tell within two centimeters. We did this also with Steffi and Boris. This is very important because Boris was very small when he was 9 years old, but since I know he is going to be 190 centimeters, I must practise a lot of serve and net with him. If I know someone is going to be 166 or 168, we must practise a lot of topspin and ground strokes.”
AGGRESSIVE: Despite his diminutive size, Becker was already aggressive the first time Breskvar saw him, lunging and diving and making the horizontal leaps at the net that have become his trademark from the grass of Wimbledon to less forgiving hard courts. “Boris tried for everything, but his technique was not so good – tennis of jumping,” Breskvar recalls. “He didn’t know how to roll. Knees and elbows scraped, blood everywhere. I said,’Hey, stop, don’t do this. You hurt yourself.’ He said,’No no,it’s ok and again he does it. I liked him from the first moment, but I stopped the session because I was afraid he would break some bones. I told him,’O.K. in two days you can come to the centre and begin training with me,’ but I thought to myself first I must teach him to jump properly.”
Breskvar ordered gym mats, which still hang on the walls alongside the centre’s three indoor courts, and tought Becker to land like an acrobat. “After, I encouraged him to jump,” Breskvar says. “This is his personality and an important part of his game, for three reasons. First, he can reach more balls. More important is the psychological effect. When Boris jumps and gets the ball, the next time the opponent thinks, ‘I must play exactly on the line.’ He tries to hit into an area half as small, and that is very difficult, and often he is hitting out. The other advantage is this jumping is very attractive for the spectators, and pretty soon they are all on Boris’s side. This is a great plus.”
Graf has improved her volley, but favours playing from the back court, winning with a lethal topspin forehand and quickness and concentration that are almost as intimidating. Graf has outstanding hand-eye coordination, reflexes and racquet control to go with her speed afoot. Breskvar remembers the first time she picked up a plastic hockey stick and joined in one of his post-practice scrimmages: “The others looked on in astonishment as she stopped, dribbled and hit the ball as if she had practiced the game for years.” Graf also loves basketball, but says she was disappointed that Breskvar wouldn’t let her play soccer “because I could easily get injured.” Breskvar says that tests showed Graf had weak ankles, for which trainer Erko Prull designed a special exercise programme. She still works on conditioning with Prull, who she calls “a very good friend of our family.” It was in large part because their drive to succeed was so similar that Breskvar had Becker hit with Graf. “They practiced together sometimes, but not a lot,” Breskvar says. “This was better training for Steffi than Boris. I like him to play with older, stronger boys. It is important to find the right sparring partner- somebody who is a little bit better, but not too much.”
Graf realises now that she and Becker had some similarities. “Temperamentally, yes,” she says. “I have always been somebody who criticised myself a lot. When I didn’t play well, I was getting mad. Boris was the same.”
At the time, though, she didn’t sense how much alike they were. “Anyway, we were kids,” she says. “At that age, nobody really expected Boris would become the player he is. They thought I had much more chance.” What gave Breskvar a vision of the future was that Becker shared Graf’s uncompromising determination. One of the coach’s friends manufactured Capri-Sonne, a fruit-juice made in Heidelberg, which became the unofficial currency of training wagers. “Boris would ask all the time, how many will you give me if I win?” Breskvar recalls. “He was already a real professional. It was incredible. The more drinks at stake the better he was playing. When he was 14 or 15, I was still stronger than he was, but we had good matches- 6-3 or 6-4 every set. One day he asked, ‘How many drinks will you give me if I beat you?’ I said ‘The whole box.’ He was trying like a madman, and he beat me, first time. Boris is a born competitor.” This begs the question that is widely debated, within Germany and abroad. Was the emergence of Graf and Becker from the same corner of the country without much tennis tradition a quirk of history or the result of a programme capable of producing more like them?
FAIRY TALES: Becker said at Wimbledon that his and Graf’s success was so improbable that they will be grandfather and grandmother before their countrymen realise what they have accomplished. Graf also says it was the stuff of fairy tales: “What else can you call it? I mean, you can’t build up two players like that. I don’t see it happening again. It’s just luck, coincidence.”
Breskvar disagrees. “They are great talents,” he says. “Without talent you cannot work. But I also think that we have done a lot with those players. You ask Mr. Graf it is only him. This is difficult. But I think this centre was very important. It was the first in Germany, and without the opportunity to practice every day without paying one Deutschmark, over eight years, it would be very, very difficult.” The chief coach of the German Tennis Federation calculated that Becker’s court time, coaching and travel as a junior had been subsidised to the tune of $500,000.
“It is too much money for most families,” Breskvar says. “We pay everything. We pay everything. This is very important. A champion must be born with talent, but he must also have the environment. You can have a great natural talent for skiing, but if you live in the Sahara, you cannot win an Olmypic gold medal in skiing.”
Good genes and God-given gifts need to be nurtured. Raw potential needs to be recognised, moulded, motivated. “Boris was not the best in Germany when he was 12, 13, 14″ Breskvar says. “He was about No.10. But when our federation was deciding where to put the money, I told our President, ‘I think Boris will be the best. We try with him,’ I don’t think it would happen without our help. There are so many players now, a champion must be something special, and he must be very well managed. The times are over when talent alone will rise to the top.”
Says Tiriac: “Boris Breskvar is a guy who had, and has, very good kids, so the results prove that he knows what he is doing…..Boris and Steffi emerging from the same area at the same time? That is an accident with ingredients that helped. Like tennis courts to play (on). Like parents connected with tennis. Like Breskvar to discover and develop the talent. If there are no courts and coaches, it is impossible to recognise a gift for tennis.”
The Baden tennis centre where Becker and Graf hit against each other as kids – must be recognised either as the setting, of an extraordinary fairy tale, or as a contemporary cradle of champions.
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
Becker, like Edberg has been around for a long time but is still young. It was not until 1989 that each emerged as a player obviously capable of winning major championships on any surface: to be explicit, on the extremes of grass and clay. In 1989 either could have become the first serve-and-volley specialist to win the French title for more than 20 years. Neither will be content with what he has already achieved, impressive though that is. Their form during the next few years will depend partly on fitness (each has had problems, largely arising from the physical stress the ‘big’ game imposes) and partly on their hunger for success. Ambition is not a constant condition of the human spirit. The flow of even the strongest river is subject to variations of rainfall on the watershed.
So far, Becker’s record has been the more spectacular and has also had wider repercussions? Like Bjorn Borg in Sweden and Guillermo Vilas in Argentina, he became a national hero whose example fired his compatriots and caused an enomous expansion in tennis interest: among players, public, court and equipment manufacturers, sponsors, and a variety of entrepreneurs.
Becker’s triumphs, swiftly followed by those of Steffi Graf, were almost as exciting for television viewers in East Germany, where tennis has been an undeveloped minor sport. Given Becker, Graf and the game’s restoration to Olympic status in 1988, we may assume that what is at present East Germany will be a productive area of growth for tennis in the 1990s.
Becker’s influence has also been considerable – and benefical – in a more senitive area. Germany needed a heroic figure commanding world-wide respect and he took on that role as if born to it. His first Wimbledon championship came 40 years after the end of the Second World War and 45 years after a German bomb had fallen on to a corner of the competitors’ centre court seating area. There was a spice of irony in the fact that Becker’s tennis on that same court dominated television, radio, and newspapers and magazines in his homeland. For most of us the War was only an older genreation’s vague, receding memory, a faint shadow in the mind. But to the German-speaking peoples it remainded a slightly touchy subject. Young though he was, Becker was aware of that: and aware, too that the new Germany needed a paragon? He responded as if all his 17 years had been spent in the diplomatic service. On court, he was an immensely Teutonic sportsman: fair-haired and blue-eyed, big and strong and a fighter to the core. Off court, he was all charm and tact and low-keyed common sense, recognizing the ‘Blond Bomber’ and ‘Blitzkrieg’ headlines as no more than facile metaphors. In short, Becker made Wimbledon history and at the same time did an impressive public relations job for Germany.
Becker’s home is a little more than six miles from Graf’s. They have known each other since childhood, when they often used to hit together and, later, played in the same tournaments. By the age of 12 he was an unusually promising footballer but gave up that game in favor of tennis. At 15 he was West Germany’s junior champion and, in the first round of the boys singles at Wimbledon, was beaten by Edberg – the top seed, who was almost two years older. At 16 Becker left school to play full-time. His potential had been recognized by the national federation’s coach, Gunther Bosch.
Since their childhood at Brasov, which lies at the foot of the transylvanian Alps, Bosch had been associated with Ion Tiriac, an uncommonly smat man with an intimidating presence. Tiriac played Davis Cup tennis for Romania from 1959 to 1977, by which time he knew everybody an all the angles. As coach, then as manager and entrepreneur, he was – and remains – a cute businessman. Tiriac went to Leimen, guaranted Becker’s parents a fat income, and took charge of the lad’s career. Bosch became Becker’s personal coach.
Thus was Becker under new management, so to speak, from 1984 onwards. In April of that year he qualified for Luxembourg’s first grand prix tournament, which was additionally memorable for the fact that there was a dog show in progress and players shared a hotel with thoroughbreds – sometimes audibly restive during the night. On court, Becker’s ferocious hitting raised images of Ivan Lendl. He had two match points against Gene Mayer. Becker qualified for Wimbledon, too, but tore some ankle ligaments when hotly engaged with Bill Scanlon and was carried away on a stretcher. By the end of that year he was already 6ft 2in tall and weighed 12st 8lb (he has since put on about half an inch and half as stone). Just the build, in fact, to take on Wimbledon and the world. Tiriac and Bosch were doing what they could to improve his quickness and agility.
Just before the 1985 Wimbledon, Becker won the Stella Artois tournament at Queen’s Club, suggesting that he could be a future Wimbledon champion. The future was now. Becker beat Hank Pfister in Wimbledon’s first round and observed that he was looking forward to ‘not being a nobody’. Joakim Nystrom and Tim Mayotte in turn took him to five sets and almost beat him. Then Becker got lucky. He did not have to play any of the top three seeds, because Kevin Curen tore through John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in straight sets and Henri Leconte‘s fireworks display reduced Ivan Lendl to dazzled helplessness. By the time the final came round, Curren, who had already done enough to win most Wimbledons, did not have quite enough left. By contrast Becker was still strong, still dreaming the dreams of the young. He was having the time of his life and let us know about it: by joyously punching the air with his fists and giving his celebrated impression of a man cycling down a cobbled street without a bicycle. He was not only the first German champion, the youngest champion, and the first unseeded champion: he was also four months younger than the winner of the boys’ singles, Leonardo Lavalle. Moreover, Becker did it again in 1986, this time with more ease. His last two victims were Leconte and Lendl. Again, neither McEnroe nor Connors crossed his path.
Becker has often said that, as a tennis player, he was born at Wimbledon, that he feels at home there. The tournament changed his life and made him a celebrated millionaire. True, he had to shoulder a championship’s increased responsabilities to the game and did not always welcome the attention he attracted, the erosion of his privacy. ‘But it’s worth paying the price’, he admitted. It has often been suggested that Wimbledon is the easiest Grand Slam tournament for a man to win, because grass permits violently short rallies that make only limited demands on a player’s experience and tactical versatility. On the other hand a Wimbledon championship is the most coveted prize in the game and carries enormous prestige. It follows that, to some extent, Becker achieved too much too soon. He was like a man standing on the top of the Everest and realizing that he had yet to learn the craft of mountaineering.
Becker learned but it took him three years to win another Grand Slam title. Let us remember that, although twice Wimbledon champion, he was only 18 years old – still growing up in the midst of sudden fame and fortune.
In January of 1987, during the Australian championships, Becker’s natural need for more independance – moe time to go his own way, enjoy the company of his girlfriend, and find out what it was like to live an approximation of a normal life – led to a split with Bosch, who was unwilling to accept the part-time role Becker now demanded of him. But Tiriac was always there and Becker could easily pick him out, beneath clouds of cigarette smoke. And by the end of 1987 Franck Dick, a British athletics coach, was making Becker a better all-round athlete and Bob Brett, an Australian coach from the Harry Hopman school, was beginning to make Becker a better tennis player. gradually, Becker came to terms with manhood – and with the kind of tennis played on surfaces far more prevalent than grass. The Davis Cup competition helped, because Becker knew that he was playing for a team, a nation, and simply had to produce the goods – whatever the surface. And he did produce the goods.
The 1988 Davis Cup triumph was followed by a year in which it all came together. On the slow clay of Paris, Becker was narrowly frustrated but proved that he was ready to pass that most difficult of all tests for any player from the serve-and-volley school. And the Becker who regained the Wimbledon championship was a far more mature player than the the Becker of 1985 and 1986. He made a little more history too. In the first set of the final Edberg was taken by storm and scored only 10 points. It was the first 6-0 set in a men’s singles final for 40 years. Moreover, Steffi Graf won the women’s title the same day. Never before had Germands won both singles championships at Wimbledon – and Becker and Graf were to repeat the feat in the United States championships two months later, though Becker had saved two match points (one with the fortuitous intervention of a net cord) in a second round match with Derrick Rostagno.
It was the first time a German had won the US men’s title. Becker is unning out of firsts but will keep coming back for more: especially if his knees and ankles and the soles of his feet are spared an excess of the pounding they get on courts that are both hot and hard.
Becker is a commanding figure and an awfully powerful player. There is a hint of arrogance in the chin-up, icy glare he gives his opponents in the moments between rallies. Off the same toss, he can win any of three sevices: flat, kick, or slice. His forehand is equally fearsome. Becker flings his racket at the ball as if he never expects to see either again. Often, no volley is needed. A similar blazing speed can be evident when he puts top-spin on his backhand, which he usually hits with underspin. His volleys, whether punched or caressed, are like the cursory last spadefuls of soil on the graves of rallies. The pattern of his assault is varied, but the persistent strength of becker’s hitting keeps his opponents under terrible stress. On top of all that there is the bounding athleticism: the huge leaps for overheads, the spectacular falls as he hurls himself into wide volleys, and the quick ease (remarkable in such a big man) with which he moves in behind his service or an early-ball approach shot. And his unquenchable fighting spirit permeates the court like some electric curent.
At the age of 22 Becker began 1990 as the best player in the world.
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club:
Wimbledon guided tour – part 1
Wimbledon guided tour – part 2
Wimbledon Centre Court roof
Court 3 : a new Show Court at Wimbledon
Waiting in the Queue to Wimbledon
Wimbledon Museum: The Queue exhibition
The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum: Player Memorabilia
Fashion and gear:
A trip down memory lane:
Wimbledon past champions: stats and records
Wimbledon ‘s biggest upsets
Wimbledon memories: Mrs Blanche Bingley Hillyard
Wimbledon memories: Charlotte Cooper Sterry
Wimbledon memories: Dora Boothby
Portrait of Wimbledon champion Ann Jones
Wimbledon 1969: Laver’s getting beat by an Indian
Rod Laver – John Newcombe Wimbledon 1969
Bjorn Borg – Ilie Nastase Wimbledon 1976
Portrait of 5-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg
Wimbledon 1976: Chris Evert defeats Evonne Goolagong
Portrait of Virginia Wade, winner in 1977
1981: First Wimbledon title for McEnroe
1982: Jimmy Connors defeats John McEnroe
1984: John McEnroe defeats Jimmy Connors
1985: Boris Becker, the man on the moon
Portrait of 3-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker
Wimbledon 1988: An era ends as Graf beats Navratilova
Wimbledon 1988: Edberg a deserving new champion
Portrait of 2-time Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg
Wimbledon 1991: the first Middle Sunday
1992: first Grand Slam for Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi: thanks to Wimbledon I realized my dreams
1993: Pete Sampras defeats Jim Courier
1994: Pete Sampras defeats Goran Ivanisevic
1996: Richard Krajicek upsets Pete Sampras
1997: Pete Sampras defeats Cédric Pioline
2000 Wimbledon SF: Pat Rafter defeats Andre Agassi
2000 Wimbledon Final: Pete Sampras defeats Pat Rafter
2001 Wimbledon 4th round: Federer defeats Sampras
Wimbledon 2010: Rafael Nadal defeats Tomas Berdych
The Spirit of Wimbledon: a 4-part documentary by Rolex retracing Wimbledon history
Will Andy Murray retain his Wimbledon title?
- No (80%, 45 Votes)
- Yes (20%, 11 Votes)
Total Voters: 56
Who will win Wimbledon 2014?
- Roger Federer (31%, 14 Votes)
- Rafael Nadal (24%, 11 Votes)
- Novak Djokovic (24%, 11 Votes)
- Andy Murray (13%, 6 Votes)
- Milos Raonic (4%, 2 Votes)
- Stan Wawrinka (2%, 1 Votes)
- Richard Gasquet (0%, 0 Votes)
- Ernests Gulbis (0%, 0 Votes)
- David Ferrer (0%, 0 Votes)
- Tomas Berdych (0%, 0 Votes)
- Other (2%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 45
Who will win Wimbledon 2014?
- Maria Sharapova (41%, 12 Votes)
- Serena Williams (21%, 6 Votes)
- Other (14%, 4 Votes)
- Li Na (10%, 3 Votes)
- Simona Halep (7%, 2 Votes)
- Victoria Azarenka (3%, 1 Votes)
- Petra Kvitova (3%, 1 Votes)
- Agniezska Radwanska (0%, 0 Votes)
- Jelena Jankovic (0%, 0 Votes)
- Angelique Kerber (0%, 0 Votes)
- Dominika Cibulkova (1%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 29
By Rex Bellamy, London Times, Tuesday July 5 1988
Edberg, aged 22, became Wimbledon champion last evening by beating Boris Becker 4-6 7-6 6-4 6-2 in a final that began on Sunday, was played in three phases, and lasted for a total of two hours and 50 minutes. This was the first Wimbledon singles final to begin one day and end the next.
Edberg is the first Swedish winner since Bjorn Borg in 1980. The title has passed from Pat Cash, an Australian with an apartment in Fulham, to a Swede with an apartment in Kensington. In January of last year Edberg beat Cash in the final of the last Australian championship played on grass.
Five years ago Edberg, having beaten Becker in the first round, won the Wimbledon boys’ title. Becker was favoured to win their long-deferred return match on the famous old lawns but, ultimately, was clearly second best to a man giving a classic demonstration of the serve-and-volley game. Edberg’s mixture of services teased Becker throughout the match.
Becker said later that his preceding matches with Cash and Ivan Lendl had taken a good deal out of him, physically and mentally, and that consequently he was unable to “push” himself when the quality of Edberg’s tennis demanded it. Edberg led 3-2 in the first set overnight but Becker, having won five consecutive games, went to 5-3 and quickly tucked the set away. But he was soon under stress. In the second set Edberg had four break points, Becker one. In the tie-break Edberg instantly took the initiative and Becker, between points, sometimes reeled about like a boxer who was taking too many punches. Edberg was two men in one. Between rallies, he ambled about like a quietly watchful gunslinger. When the ball was in motion, he reacted like lightning, shot from the hip, and seldom missed his target. His serving, volleying, and return of service were exhilarating not least when he was volleying or driving on the backhand.
Always springy in the forecourt, Edberg usually gave a little hop of satisfaction after putting away a volley. There was many a fleeting hint of a private smile. Edberg sometimes punched the air, too.
Such indications of pleasure were never excessive and were always swiftly suppressed. Edberg is no man to make a fuss, or to be discourteous to his opponent by giving any sign of gloating. He was happy because he knew that he was playing his best tennis, whereas Becker was not. But Edberg was aware that it could all change, at any moment.
Edberg broke to 2-1 in the third set and in the next game Becker irritably threw down his racket in frustration and was given a warning. Becker changed his racket but in the next game he was briefly embarrassed when he slipped and sat down in the forecourt: and Edberg lobbed him. Again, Becker angrily swished his racket.
Edberg was remorseless. He clinched that third set with a run of four service games in which he conceded only three points. Becker, often shaking his head, was riddled with self-doubt. His usually formidable power game was spluttering the blazing services and returns too sporadic to give Edberg persistent cause for concern.
Yet the tension remained almost tangible, because we knew that although Edberg could play no better, Becker might. But in the first game of the fourth set Becker, serving, went 30-40 down: and a voice from the stands cried “Bye, bye, Boris”.
Becker lost that game with a double-fault and, head bowed, went to the changeover with one strong hand hiding his face. If there was any further doubt in his mind, or Edberg’s, it was dispelled when Edberg broke him again, to 4-1. In that game one of Edberg’s backhands exploded down the court like a shell. Edberg’s service games remained impregnable even in the last game, in which his six services were all second balls. Becker was a broken man. In the last rally he had Edberg at his mercy but dumped an easy backhand into the net. Edberg fell to his knees, hardly believing his luck.
But Edberg had made his own luck, because in the last three sets he never gave Becker the slightest cause for hope, the slightest chance to take a breather and get his act together. So this was not the all-German year. It was the year of Steffi and Stefan.
By Peter Alfano, New York Times, July 3, 1988
As she stood at the umpire’s chair during the postmatch ceremony – trying to keep a stiff upper lip in the best British tradition – Martina Navratilova could have closed her eyes and recited all the parts by heart. This was the ninth time she had played a major role in this slice of Wimbledon pomp and circumstance, having become as much of a fixture on Centre Court as the Duke and Duchess of Kent. For the first time, however, she would leave without the championship.
That now belongs to Steffi Graf of West Germany, who at 19 is clearly alone at the top of the women’s game. Last year, she assumed the No. 1 ranking from Navratilova, and today, she took the prize that Navratilova values the most.
“This is how it should happen,” Navratilova said. “I lost to a better player on the final day. This is the end of a chapter, passing the torch if you want to call it that.”
Graf struggled at first, then overpowered Navratilova, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, to win her first Wimbledon title. She has now earned three-quarters of the Grand Slam, needing only to win the United States Open in September to complete the task. She would be the first woman to win the Slam since Margaret Court in 1970. Graf won the Australian Open in January and the French Open in June.
There was more at stake, however, than Graf’s Grand Slam ambitions. Navratilova was vying for a record ninth Wimbledon singles championship, which would have enabled her to pass Helen Wills Moody. She had also won six of those titles in succession, a record she holds alone. In past years, Navratilova stood at Centre Court, holding up the large silver plate awarded the winner, likening her collection to chinaware. She wanted to add to her service of eight, she said.
Graf will make that goal more difficult to attain, however, as she showed during this Wimbledon that she will be as difficult to beat on grass as on any other surface. This was considered Navratilova’s last domain. “Getting ready for the final has always been easy for me,” Navratilova said. “I wasn’t nervous or uptight. But Steffi was hitting winners all over the place. She gets to balls no one else can. I got blown out the last two sets. So it wasn’t that tough to accept losing. I could feel what she was feeling, have that same joy because I know what the feeling is.”
Graf tossed her racquet into the box seats, the way she did when she won the French Open for the first time in 1987. An official showed her how to hold the trophy in the traditional display to the photographers and crowd. Navratilova watched, mustering a smile, fingering the much smaller plate given the runner-up.
“Winning is such a special feeling,” Graf said. “I was confident before the match, but the first set made me very angry. I just wanted to hang in there, to show I could play much better than I was.”
Graf is noted for her topspin forehand, easily the most intimidating shot among the women. Unlike the patty-cake baseliners of the previous generation, she plays aggressively from the backcourt, overpowering other baseliners, discouraging serve-and-volleyers with buggy-whip passing shots.
She is more, though, than a one-shot player. In the past year, Graf’s serve has become formidable and she is also developing a better-than-average net game. Her backhand, which Navratilova tried to exploit, is considered her weakness, although it is better than most. Navratilova sliced her serve and ground strokes to Graf’s backhand in the first set, just as she had in last year’s final. Graf was up a break at 4-2, but the strategy began to pay off as Navratilova broke in the 10th game and again in the 12th to win the set.
“My backhand was terrible,” Graf said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable out there. I had been trying to get good angles on my returns, but in the second set I played more to her volley, letting her hit it, then getting another chance.”
When Navratilova broke in the second game of the second set to lead, 2-0, the match appeared to be over. Graf’s shoulders sagged; she looked defeated. Navratilova was all clenched fist and swagger. But Graf broke back in the third game, hitting two service-return winners on her forehand. That was to be the turning point in the match as Navratilova was unable to hold serve again. The mood changed as dramatically as the weather has these past few days.
It was like trying to stop a runaway train. Graf won nine games in a row, taking the second set, building a 3-0 lead in the final one. Navratilova did not have any answers. Graf was playing in that hurry-up no-nonsense manner of hers, and when Navratilova paused to wipe a few raindrops from her glasses, the crowd booed, thinking she was stalling. “I was so angry,” she said. “I wasn’t stalling, I was trying to see.”
Navratilova broke Graf in the fourth game, giving her a glimmer of hope, but then it rained and any momentum disappeared. “I saw her in the locker room and she was so down,” Graf said. “I thought, ‘If she’s going to play like she looks, she can’t win.’ “
Sure enough, when play resumed after a 44-minute delay, Graf broke Navratilova again, moving around the court as if she were on springs. She held serve and then broke Navratilova to close out the match, aided by two double faults. At match point, she whipped a backhand return winner that clipped the net as it went past Navratilova.
“Steffi is a super player and a nice human being,” Navratilova said. “If she can keep winning, great. It’s possible I can win Wimbledon again, I would love to win it one more time. But you can’t be greedy. Eight ain’t so bad, you know.”
By Peter Graf with Cindy Schmerler, World Tennis Magazine, May 1988
I knew my daughter Steffi was going to be a tennis champion when she was not yet 4 years old because her hand was stronger than most 6 or 7 year-old boys and girls. I noticed this when she held up her racket, the handle of which I had cut down so she could play at the club where my wife and I also played.
I was 27 at the time and No. 1 at the club, even though I started playing so late. My wife wasn’t a bad player either and we played a lot. Steffi loved to watch us. Most of the boys and girls went to the wall with a small racket and Steffi wanted to go too. I said, “Please Steffi, let it go. I will show you the right way.”
I was surprised to see that Steffi could hold the racket head up, even at 3 years and 9 months old. I told her to make a small bow and meet the ball in front of her; she could do that too. Every evening when I came home Steffi would be waiting at the door with her racket in her hand. If I said, “Oh, Steffi, I am tired,” she would say, “Oh, please Papa, just a little, O.K?”
I have to admit, this was not tennis back then. Everyone says Steffi started playing tennis when she was 4, but you can’t do that. We only played for four, five, or six minutes a day. Six months later, maybe it was 10 or 12 minutes, but it was always for fun and only as long as she wanted to play.
One thing we did during that time was gamble. We put a string between two chairs in the living room. I’d say, “O.K, now if you hit the ball over the net 10 or 15 times, you get Pepsis.” I would challenge her by saying, “I don’t believe you can do it.” But she always did.
We started playing in the living room, but pretty soon Steffi was hitting so hard she was breaking the lights on the chandelier. My wife had to buy more and more lights and she was getting mad. I had to say, “Steffi, one more light … you hit too hard.” Finally, I sold my billiards table in the playroom downstairs and we started playing there.
Even at that early age Steffi was very competitive. She wanted so badly to get the ball over 15 times. Then she would say, “Papa, if I hit 20 times …. ?” and I said, “if you hit the ball 20 times over we make a party.” And she did, so we had a big party with ice cream and strawberries and – most importantly – music. Steffi loves music.
I always knew Steffi had special talent. I had taught 6- to 8-year-old players, and Steffi was different. She always had her eyes on the ball. Nothing distracted her. Even if the phone rang, she never looked away. You think she has great concentration now; she was always that way.
The strength in her hand was also important. I made a video of her swinging at 5 years old and later saw a film of Tracy Austin at the same age. I noticed that Tracy couldn’t hold the racket the way Steffi could. Tracy was
a smaller girl, but Steffi was just much stronger.
But the most important thing was that Steffi always had fun with tennis. I saw so many players whose parents put pressure on them. They would say, “You have to play tennis today.” With Steffi you never had to say that. With her, I would say, “O.K, I think we can play today,” and then she was always at the court earlier than the time we were scheduled to play.
I have always been Steffi’s coach. Now other people, like Pavel Slozil, travel and hit with her, but I know her game best. I taught her the technical skills and still work with her all the time.
The good thing about Steffi is that she likes to learn. Now she’s not so easy to teach because she knows the game. She is stubborn and very critical of herself. After she misses a shot, she knows what she did wrong and doesn’t want to hear it from someone else. Tennis is a very individual sport and everyone who plays is an individual. That’s why it’s hard to teach someone to play in a group. In West Germany, tennis is organized. We have one and a half or two million organized players. In Leimen, where Boris Becker practiced (and Steffi did too sometimes), there were about 14 good players and three courts in the hall. There were four boys and girls on each court and it was impossible to teach individually.
So when Steffi was 8 I sold my car company and built a tennis hall near our home. That way I could work with Steffi individually. That was very important. We would work together for one or two hours every day and I knew exactly what was good for her and what wasn’t.
Not everyone liked that. A lot of people had an idea of how Steffi should play. At this time, Bjorn Borg was in, so the coaches in Leimen told me that Steffi should play with more topspin. I said that Steffi couldn’t do this because she didn’t have the strength. There was one boy who hit the ball with a great deal of topspin on the forehand, but the ball always landed in front of the serviceline. Steffi hit the ball to the baseline. So I finally
said, “If you think his way is right, let them play a match.”
Steffi won two sets in about 20 minutes. The point here is that every player is an individual. Steffi was not a topspin player so it was not right for her to change her game to suit someone else. Borg is an individual, and so is Steffi.
About six months later, Manuel Orantes won the 1976 Masters using a slice backhand; all of a sudden the coaches were telling us that Steffi must learn to hit a slice backhand. I felt the coaches were saying that to be a champion all players had to do the same thing. But I decided to make my own way with Steffi. She had to play the way she wanted to play with the shots she had in her head. So there were some people who were against us, but Steffi became the European champion at 11, 12 and 13 years old. And instead of playing topspin, she hit a normal, very fast ball; it worked for her.
What I learned from this is that sometimes you have to fight for things. That is not always my mentality, but I wanted to take all the pressure off Steffi and put it on my small – or not so small – shoulders. It was very important that I went my own way at this time and that is why I didn’t have so many friends in tennis. We went the way that was right for Steffi and maybe not right for 99.9 percent of the other players.
I know that people have compared me with Roland Jaeger, but I am not Mr. Jaeger. I don’t even know him, but he did say hello to me once at the Orange Bowl when Steffi was 13. At that time I knew my image was not so good. I hope that has changed, but if you have to make your own way, you can’t always worry about your image. I have also learned a lot since we first came to the United States that year. It was never my way to make big problems for others, but I know in the beginning I made some mistakes. But not everything was my fault.
Once in Berlin, when Steffi was 14, she was asked at a press conference if she would like to play Federation Cup for West Germany. She was only No. 5 in the country at the time, but she said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” Well, one man thought she meant she didn’t want to play and kept asking her why not. I came into the room at this time and said, “Now it’s done, finish please. It’s unbelievable what you are doing to my daughter.” And there were about 40 or 50 people there and they all said to me, “Why did you do such a stupid thing?” But Steffi didn’t know to just say, “If I’m invited, I’ll play,” and end it, so I had to help her. These things gave me an early reputation. But I think that is changing now and people realize that the only person I always cared about was Steffi.
Family support is one of the most important qualities in developing a champion. Steffi has a brother, Michael, who is now 16 years old and also likes sports, but not anything special. He likes skiing, is a very good track and field runner, likes basketball and dancing, and is not a bad tennis player. And he’s good in school. He will probably become a doctor.
Steffi and Michael are very close. Whenever Steffi calls home, the first thing she asks is, “What is Michael doing?” And that is very important. She likes her family and the support we give her. She also knows that I love my son the same as Steffi. Sometimes she says, “Oh, Michael has an unbelievable life because he can do everything.” But she also knows how lucky she is and what we have done for her.
The day before Steffi left to go to the States after her holiday at the beginning of the year, we had a big party for her at a disco and it was unbelievable. Steffi was absolutely crazy. There were so many friends there, boys and girls, and Steffi danced so much. Off-court, she is a normal girl and much nicer than people can see on-court.
But she also knows exactly what she wants. She knows what type of boy she likes and what kind of person she wants to be. She has a lot of personality that the other tennis players are just now starting to see. People are
beginning to understand that the way Steffi is on-court – she looks so strong – has nothing to do with herself. She only concentrates on the match. After that, she is absolutely normal, laughing and singing and dancing like other girls her age.
But in tennis, Steffi goes her own way. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t make a champion. You can help, but a champion makes herself.