Andre Agassi, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Two men took center stage during the first week of the Open. Andre Agassi was expected to win his matches and move on to the second week, and he did – but not without a fire storm of controversy. No one knew what to expect from John McEnroe – controversial or otherwise – and what he did produce was entirely unexpected.

But not quite as unexpected as the performance Agassi put on during his second-round match, against Petr Korda. Agassi had gone home after Indianapolis to rest (and get stronger) prior to the Open, and he showed up for his first-round match, against Grant Connell, in a new outfit that looked like something designed to glow in the dark. It was some sort of lime-green, black-and-white concoction, with a shirt that hung down long in the back but was cut short in the front. Agassi had insisted that it be designed this way so his stomach would be revealed for all to see every time he hit a forehand.

Basking in the attention given his new clothes, Agassi seemed to be well past the funk he had been in during August. But Korda was not the easiest of second-round matches. No one on the tour could figure him out. He was Czech, left-handed, and, according to everyone, nuts. He could be brilliant, as against Brad Gilbert in Davis Cup when he had wiped him out in three sets, or awful, depending on his mood. He had gotten as high as twenty-second on the computer but had slipped back to thirty-third after a mediocre summer.

The match was at night – the USTA making sure TV got its Agassi fix – and was taut and tense for two sets. Agassi won the first, but late in the second he exploded in a manner that brought back memories of McEnroe at his worst.
Read More

Martina Navratilova Wimbledon 1990

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Zina Garrison was now facing a woman on a mission. Navratilova had played almost perfect tennis for two weeks. She had lost just twenty-four games in six matches and hadn’t come close to losing a set. Off the court, she had been hyper almost the entire two weeks, but whenever she stepped on court, she was ready. Now, with one match to go, the nearness of it all hit her.

On Friday night she sat with Billie Jean King and Craig Kardon at her kitchen table to talk about their game plan for the final. This had become a ritual. Now King changed the ritual.

“You make the game plan,” she said. “Get out your journal and tell me what you need to do.”

Navratilova pulled out her journal and began going through it frantically. She finally boiled it down to four pages of notes.
“Not good enough,” King said. “I want one page. I want your mind clear.” Navratilova was becoming hysterical. She looked at King and Kardon. “This is the most important match I’ve ever played in my life,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be this close again. Do you think I’ll be able to play? Will I be able to hit the ball at all?”
King nodded. “You’ll play well,” she said. “You’ve never been prepared in your life.”

Navratilova calmed down. She got her notes down to one page: “Stay in the present,” she wrote.

“I had to keep my mind off winning,” she said. “Winning was the future. I had to be in the present. Think about that point and that point only.”

She also knew she had to attack, especially off Garrison’s weak second serve. Get on top of her, don’t give her the chance to come in. All tournament she had intentionally not thought about playing Graf in the final, in case that very thing happened. Now, she was thinking only about Garrison. Navratilova was 27-1 against Garrison, lifetime. She knew she was ready to play. That night, for the first time in two weeks. She slept soundly.

At 2pm precisely, Garrison and Navratilova walked on court for the final. Navratilova had walked on to Centre Court for the final. Navratilova had walked on to Centre Court for the Wimbledon final eleven times; now she was trying to walk off it with a major piecey of history. Garrison had no thoughts of history or, for that matter, of the match as she walked out. She thought, instead, of her mother.

“My mother never would have believed it,” she said later. “She just wouldn’t have believed it,” she said later. “She just wouldn’t have believed it was me going out there to play the Wimbledon final. She would have been impossible to talk to.”

Thinking about her mother, Garrison could feel tears welling up but forced herself to focus on tennis. She started well, holding serve, then having beak points in the second game. But Navratilova held and, following her game plan perfectly, moved into a zone that was untouchable. She was on top of the net all day, never missing a volley. Her serve was almost flawless, her returns low and at Garrison’s feet. In many ways it was a repeat of all their matches of the past. The styles were similar. One player just played it better.

It ended on one last Navratilova backhand. Overwhelmed, drained and exhausted, Navratilova fell to her knees. She raced up through the stands to her entourage, kissing Kardon, hugging King and hugging Nelson. Once she would have been afraid to hug Nelson in public; now she did it without hesitation.

Nine times she had been handed the plate by the Duchess of kent, but this time the duchess gave her a kiss before handing it over. Navratilova cried as she held it above her head.
The biggest cheer was reserved for Garrison. Navratilova had won; Garrison had inspired. She had overcome so much to get there that losing the final couldn’t diminish what she had achieved.

That night, both women celebrated. Garrison, her entourage, and about twenty friends went to a London restaurant and toasted what they had accomplished. Navratilova threw a party at her house and got drunk.

“Two whiskey sours did it,” she said. “I hadn’t had a drink other than a glass of wine with dinner or a sip of beer for years. I just sat in the corner and laughed.”

The joy at the two parties was genuine. Both women deserved to eat, to drink, to be merry. To laugh. And to cry.

Wimbledon 90: Becker vs Edberg

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

When Becker walked on court for the final, on a glistening, postcard-perfect day, there was another problem. Katarina Witt, the glamorous German ice skater, had come to town earlier in the week. She was in the process of making a deal with Tiriac, and he had invited her to Wimbledon. Becker, single again, had spent some time with her.

It didn’t take long for the London tabloids to get cranked up. Now, as Becker walked on court, he looked up toward the friends’ box, expecting to see Brett and Tiriac’s assistant, Heather McLachlan, sitting there. That had been the drill the entire tournament. But now, in addition to Brett and McLachlan, Becker’s sister was there. That was fine. So was Katarina Witt. That wasn’t fine.
From his seat, Brett saw a look pass over Becker’s face. “It was a shock,” Becker said later. “I never expected to see her there. Heather had just given her the ticket to sit there without thinking about what it would me. She told me later she was sorry, that she made a mistake.”
What it meant was tabloid mania. Front page pictures galore, rumors about a Becker-Witt romance everywhere. It wasn’t what Becker needed starting a Wimbledon final.
Those thoughts, his feeling of satisfaction after the semifinal, and Edberg’s brilliance made Becker look helpless the first two sets.

“I just didn’t feel like I was in a Wimbledon final,” he said. “I didn’t even feel nervous going on court. Then I got a little distracted at the start (by Witt), and the next thing I know it’s 6-2 6-2. Then, my only thought was to not make a complete fool of myself.”

Edberg was also as shocked as Becker. How could it be so easy? He had lost three Grand Slam finals in eighteen months. Maybe it was in turn at last.
Or maybe not. Edberg had a break point in the first game of the third set. It was, for all intents and purposes, a match point as far as Becker was concerned. He came in and Edberg teed up another backhand. He ripped it crosscourt. Not this time: Becker read it perfectly and knocked off a sharp backhand volley. From there, he held. Given a glimmer of life, he broke Edberg for the first time in the next game. Maybe, he thought, I can win a set.
He won it. Then he won another. They had played for two hours and fifteen minutes. Now they would play the first fifth set in a Wimbledon final since McEnroe-Connors in 1982. Becker was wound up, stoking. Edberg was reeling.

“I was all the way to fifth gear,” Becker said. “He wasn’t there yet. I needed to take him out before he got there.”

He had his chance. Serving at 1-2, Edberg served two double faults, the second one an ugly balloon that almost went over the baseline. Becker was up 3-1. The match was on his racquet.

“But somehow I could’t keep my mind right there on the match,” he said. “I started to think about holding that trophy again. I knew that if I served the match out, I would be on the same side of the net where I had been the other three times I had won. Those were wrong thoughts at that time. If I win the game at 3-1, he’s finished. But I couldn’t keep my concentration.”

Becker needed to, as Navratilova would put it, stay in the present. Instead, he had let his mind wander into the future. At 30-all, Edberg chipped a backhand and Becker didn’t get down far enough for the volley. He netted it. Break point. Becker came in behind a serve and had an easy forehand volley. He pushed it wide.

Edberg pumped a fist. Becker had let him get into fifth gear. “He was in fifth and I was out of gas,” he said later. With Edberg serving at 4-4, Edberg came up with the shot of the match, a perfect backhand topspin lob that landed on the line, to get one last service break. He skipped to his chair while Becker slumped. Becker tried to talk to himself into it one more time but it as too late. Edberg served it out, finishing with a perfect kick serve that Becker just got to but pushed wide.

As the ball landed, Edberg hurled the ball he had in his hand toward the sky as Pickard leapt from his seat, screaming. Becker, never classier, climbed over the net and hugged Edberg. His eyes were glassy.

“I really couldn’t believe I had lost after coming so far back,” he said. “I went home the next day and wrote for hours and thought and tried to figure it out. In the end, I thought maybe it was his time. He had lost three straight finals. He had been hurt in one that he probably would have won. We’ve played so many times that we both deserve some good things. He’s a good guy. He’s different than me, it doesn’t show his emotion, but he is a great player. I decided he deserved this Wimbledon.”

For Edberg, this second Wimbledon was even better than the first because of the travails of the past two years. He even got to go to the champions’ dinner. In 1988, with the final postponed until Monday, he hadn’t been able to go. This time, he got to go. When he arrived at the dinner, he raced up to Navratilova, panicked.

“What kind of dance do we have to do?” he asked her.

Navratilova laughed. Once, it had been part of Wimbledon tradition for the two champions to dance the first dance together. But in 1978, the dinner had been moved to the Savoy Hotel. There was no room in the ballroom for a dance floor and no more first dance.
Edberg was relieved. The thought of dancing in front of a thousand people was far more terrifying than the thought of being down 3-1 in the fifth. He had survived that and he didn’t have to dance. A perfect day.

Edberg and Navratilova sat at the head table and got to hear the toast that climaxes every Wimbledon. Shortly before midnight, John Curry stood up and raised his glass.

“To the Queen,” he said

Everyone in the room stood. “The Queen,” they chorused back. The Championships of 1990 were over.

Also read:
Wimbledon 1990: Becker and Edberg in a Centre Court reunion
Wimbledon 1988: Edberg, a new deserving champion
Portrait of Stefan Edberg, by Rex Bellamy

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the time day two was done at Roland Garros, the men’s tournament was in complete disarray. On that second day, both Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker lost. Never in Grand Slam tennis history had the top two seeds lost in the first round.

Both losses were shockingly decisive. Edberg, playing at eleven in the morning, acted as if he were in a different time zone, winning a grand total of seven games against Sergi Bruguera, a Spanish teenager who had shown much promise in the ppast twelve months. Bruguera didn’t even have to play very well to win this match, though. Edberg’s performance was summed up perfectly by his coach, Tony Pickard: Asked what he thought had happened, Pickard shrugged and said,

“There’s not a word I can say about this match that’s printable.”

Becker didn’t play nearly as poorly as Edberg, but he ran into a very hot, very talented player. Goran Ivanisevic was the same age as Bruguera – nineteen – but a completely different player. The Spaniard was a clay-courter all the way, a kid with solid ground strokes who would make a lot of money from the game without ever being great at it. Ivanisevic had greatness in him. He was from Split, Yugoslavia, a six-foot-five lefty with a serve that could be past you before you knew it was off the racquet. He could play superbly or horrendously no matter what the surface. He had been tossed out of the European Championships at the age of fourteen and, by his own admission, had a tendency to tank when things went wrong.
On this day, nothing went wrong. He beat Becker in four sets, playing, as Becker put it, “completely out of his mind.”

While the men were losing their two most glamorous names on the tournament’s second day, the women were watching it all, feeling just a little bit envious. Upsets of the Becker-Edberg magnitude just didn’t happen in the women’s game. There simply wasn’t enough depth for the top players to lose that early.
In the fifty-six Grand Slam tournaments of her career, Chris Evert had lost before the quarterfinals twice – in the third round at Wimbledon in 1983 and in the third round of her last French Open, in 1988. In the 1980s, Martina Navratilova never lost before the fourth round – and lost that early only three times in thirty-seven Slams. Steffi Graf had not lost before the quarterfinals of a Slam since 1985, when, as a fifteen-year-old, she had lost in the fourth round of the French to Evert.

Slowly that was changing.

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Arantxa Sanchez had been having an inconsistent year, and few people gave her much chance to defend her title. But even fewer people thought that Mercedes Paz, her doubles partner, would be the person to knock her out of the tournament.

Paz was a month shy of twenty-four and had been on tour for six years. People said she could really be a factor if she ever got in shape, but at the end of 1989 she weighed 184 pounds. Even at five feet ten, that was a lot of weight to be carrying. She had finally gotten herself on a training regimen at the start of the year and had lost twenty-five pounds. She was still bulky and lacked quickness, but the difference in her game was evident.

Sanchez, meanwhile, was going through a difficult time. She had changed coaches earlier in the year, hiring Mike Estep to replace her longtime coach, Juan Nunez. Estep had a simple philosophy when it came to coaching women: anybody can attack if they want to; he had made Martina Navratilova more aggressive when he began coaching her in 1983, getting her to come in behind her second serve, and he had preached the same kind of game to every player he had worked since then.
At forty-one, Estep was thinking it might be time to get off the tennis merry-go-round. But IMG had called to say Sanchez was looking for a coach. They were willing to meet Estep’s financial terms – which included first-class airfare for him and his wife Barbara – and wanted him to meet with Sanchez. he did, liked her and her family, and took the job. Right now, though, Sanchez was caught in the middle. Part of her understood why Estep wanted her to be more aggressive, but a major part of her still felt more comfortable hugging the baseline. An indecisive player is almost always a losing player.

“What you can say?” Sanchez said in her fractured English after the match. “Last year I win there; this year, I don’t. It happens.”

She was exactly right. What Sanchez had done in 1989 was extraordinary. The problem was, in tennis, everyone demanded that the extraordinary be repeated over and over again.