Wimbledon 1988: An Era Ends as Graf Beats Navratilova
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.”