Skip to main content
Original Issue


The women took center stage at the French Open as once again Steffi Graf beat Martina Navratilova

They played the French Open on clay. It was a draw. In the women's championship match, Steffi Graf won. In the men's, the clay won.

Of course, it wasn't only the clay. The Paris weather, rude and capricious, even for the most indomitable of lovers and tennis players alike, also did its part. For all the wondrous things the City of Light may possess, the only thing it has going for it in the spring is imaginative songwriters.

At least one lyricist was right when he thanked heaven for little girls. Also, thank heaven for anything distaff carrying a tennis racket in Paris. It used to be said that there was no more painful or-deal in sport than watching women play tennis on clay. But now we really know why the French Open is played over the Marquis de Sade's birthday. A local boy—he would have been 247 last week—never would he have delighted in more exquisite torture than that inflicted upon hapless spectators forced to watch today's crop of male players hitting endless, looping ground strokes throughout best-of-five-set matches on red clay.

Ivan Lendl outlasted the field, whipping Sweden's Mats Wilander—who had been celebrated as the game's best clay-court player—in Sunday's final. So Lendl is, more than ever, indisputably No. 1 in the world. Unfortunately for Lendl, who is officially on his way to becoming an American citizen, if men's tennis doesn't get any more entertaining and challenging than it was in Paris, then very soon very few will care who is No. 1.

Graf's future is more assured, for Paris brought her to the top while still a week shy of her eighteenth birthday. To be sure, Martina Navratilova is back on track, will be a huge favorite at Wimbledon and is still No. 1 on that fool computer. But Graf beat the great Navratilova in a magnificent 6-4, 4-6, 8-6 final on Saturday, and she has now won seven tournaments in a row and 39 straight matches.

Afterward, Martina pleaded with the press, "Don't try and dethrone me." But in March, when Graf defeated her at the Lipton Players Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., Navratilova said, "Today she was the best player in the world, and she will be until I play her again." Navratilova has always been as good as her word.

Not only does Graf figure to improve, but at Roland Garros she also showed valor to match her talent. In the semifinal, against her contemporary, Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, and again in the final, Graf was down 5-3 in the third set. "I was just out there enjoying myself," she said after the Sabatini match. In the back of the room, Peter Graf, her father and tutor, had to bow his head and smirk. Enjoy? Steffi is a loner, intense, driven to succeed. As soon as one point is done, she drums herself, rat-a-tat-tat, into place for the next one: Let's go, let's play—nothing like it since Little Mo Connolly. But like her teenage countryman Boris Becker, she is no bloodless Teutonic clichè. "Steffi's got a good heart," says Navratilova. "She's a good kid."

Madame Evert—that is what the French called the defending champion, combining her maiden name with her married title—evidently has some sort of subconscious block against acknowledging the rise of the new champion and the other brilliant, young contender. Evert would invariably refer to each of them in the plural, as if hundreds of such teenage baseline products were being dumped on the market for her inspection. "The Sabatinis and the Grafs are eager," she would say. Or: "I watched the Sabatinis and the Grafs this week, and I rarely do that."

Once, to complicate things even more, Madame Evert referred to the Sabatinis, the Grafs and the Maleevas. Of course, there really are two tennis-playing Maleevas, Manuela, 20, and her sister Katerina, 18.

In any event, the Everts and the Navratilovas fared rather differently in Paris. Evert, lately adorning Wheaties boxes, swept in with her handsome new escort, Andy Mill, a former Olympic skier from Aspen, Colo., and took considerably more time primping for press conferences than she did playing the bloody matches.

Then, in the Old People's Conference Championship, against Navratilova in the semifinals, she botched it all. Evert played abysmally, holding serve only on pain of match point and aimlessly hitting so many balls long that one could only recall General Andrew Jackson's advice to his troops at the Battle of New Orleans: "Boys, elevate them guns a little lower." Madame Evert departed for England, where she and Mill are scheduled to meet the London tabloids in a best-of-two-week match on the dirt.

Navratilova arrived in France on the defensive. She hadn't won a tournament all year, during which time she was forced to contend with a persistent foot injury, a racket in which she had seemingly lost confidence and the lack of a steady coach. She and Mike Estep, her coach for three years, agreed to a parting of the ways last January, before the Australian Open; Virginia Wade didn't cut the mustard, and Rod Laver sent his regrets.

Then, midway through the tournament, Dr. Renee Richards, the Park Avenue ophthalmologist, agreed to give up some time from her practice and take the rudder during Grand Slam events. Four years ago at the French Open, Richards had been summarily banished from Team Navratilova when Martina was upset by Kathleen Horvath. "Martina called me out of some need," the doctor said calmly, even as everywhere the word "panic" was being applied to the champion.

Soon enough the sails were trimmed, strategy meetings were called and Evert was destroyed. Navratilova even forsook the Yonex racket she is paid to endorse in favor of a Dunlop model that she not so subtly camouflaged with black paint. Navratilova would have thrown back the Graf challenge, except for a few egregious mistakes. Still, with her appearance in last week's championship match, Martina has now reached the final in 9 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments (and 15 of her last 16), a record that no other woman has approached.

The final was of high quality, too, despite the mischievous winds that penalized Navratilova's net game far more than they did Graf's, who relies on pounding her awesome forehand from the baseline. Indeed, Martina could have broken serve for 7-6 in the final set, but just as she was poised to put away an easy backhand volley at 30-40, a gust blew red dust from the court into her eyes, and she rapped the ball into the tape.

As the match progressed (the players traded 6-4 sets) a disproportionate part of the action moved to one sliver of the court as Navratilova, forcing the action, hit more and more to Graf's weaker stroke, her backhand. To compensate, Graf would often try to run around the backhand, so that in time she came to resemble a football wideout, flanked left. Her ability to stab a few backhands past Martina's backhand volley, down that thin red sliver, saved the match for Graf in the late going.

Alas, a double fault sealed Martina's doom. Trailing 7-6, ad-out in the final set, she hit her second serve long, boldly going deep as Graf ran out wide to attempt a strong forehand return. Navratilova preferred to go down swinging rather than let Graf have at her with her monster forehand.

The losing semifinalists are truly to be lamented. Poor Sabatini, poor butterfly. How much can a 17-year-old's heart take before it breaks?

In a semifinal as artful and close as the final (6-4, 4-6, 7-5), Sabatini never played better, her stamina was never stronger, and those Joan Crawford shoulders never sagged. "She was closer than ever before," Graf said. But again Sabatini lost. Seven times she and Graf have played, six times they have gone three sets, each time Graf has won.

They are close in so many ways: doubles partners, born less than a year apart, about the same size, baseliners—Graf with her forehand, Sabatini with her morning-glory, down-the-line backhand. And, as if by magic, they arrived from different corners of the globe with the old custom of holding both service balls. So much alike. Yet only one wins. "I think we're going to be like Martina and Chris," Gaby said proudly one day in Paris. Only sadly, it seems. Affirmed and Alydar are their models.

As for Martina and Chris: Is that rivalry finished at last? "I was sadder than I might usually be," said Navratilova right after she beat Evert in their six-dozenth match. "My God, I was just about to win, and I could only think, Is this going to be the last of Chris here?" Why not? Au revoir, America.

Indeed, on this, the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Spirit of St. Louis in Paris, the spirit of East St. Louis was all that kept the Stars and Stripes fluttering aloft at Roland Garros for the men. Jimmy Connors, late of that little river city, was the lone American male to make the quarterfinals, and, at the age of 34, he was never more engaging.

"I'm having a helluva time here, playing a little tennis every coupla days," he said one day. However, until he came a cropper against Becker, Connors had not faced a single player ranked in double digits. Then again, it's not Connors' fault that, in his dotage, he is the best that Uncle Sam has got to offer, whatever his draw.

John McEnroe, the former tennis great who is facing imminent suspension for high crimes and misdemeanors, quietly lost in the first round and went home to see the Lakers. Because of his foul behavior in recent weeks, McEnroe knows full well that if he so much as looks cross-eyed at a Wimbledon official, he'll be handed his hat.

Pam Shriver and Robert Seguso did win doubles titles (women's and mixed for Shriver, men's for Seguso), but both were clever enough to play with European-bred partners. The eight American juniors entered in girls and boys singles play were all eliminated by the third round. Luckily, we still know how to recruit out of state, and Lendl has received approval for a green card.

Moreover, in hope of fast-forwarding Lendl's citizenship, U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut has recently introduced a bill to expedite the Americanization process for the Czech. Attention Davis Cup fans: Write your Congressman! As Connors correctly opined in Paris, "If the weight of the United States is being carried on my shoulders, that's pretty damn hurting."

Actually, Wilander has bought a residence for himself and his bride, Sonya, in the fashionable Connecticut suburbs, right near Lendl. Nutmeg neighbors, fine; tennis opponents, please, no. Though the crowd at Roland Garros—as everywhere—rooted steadfastly against Lendl, and though he gets blamed for everything boring in tennis, Wilander was the prime villain in their final. This atrocity, which lasted nearly five hours, included a 35-minute rain delay and untold minutes spent by both competitors in staring at their strings, like druids examining animal entrails. The match mercifully concluded around 8:30 at night. For the record, the score was 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3).

The first set, which by general consensus was the most execrable performance inflicted upon paying customers since some scoundrel named Lawford invented the topspin stroke 100 years ago, took one hour and 20 minutes. In this shotfest the first successful volley was executed by Lendl 34 minutes into the proceedings. Wilander made his first volley on his third try, which came one hour and two minutes into the match. You get the picture. There were five breaks of serve, and no breaks in the monotony.

Curiously, Wilander had boasted of his new attacking game, which he had employed most efficaciously against France's Yannick Noah in the quarters and Becker in the semis. Apparently he demands that his opponent play the foil, and Lendl simply wouldn't cooperate. Some rallies that the two finalists looped from baseline to baseline took so long that small vertebrates were conceived, born, reproduced themselves, took out mortgages and died before the points ended.

Even in the fourth-set tiebreaker, when it was raining and hard to see, they played one point of about 50 loops and another of 30. Afterward, Wilander explained that he hadn't meant to play this way, but once he got into it, well, he just couldn't change. Stop me before I kill again.

As for Lendl, as polite, honest and diligent as he is, he has increasingly become some sort of antitennis player, taking more pride in his endurance than in any of his marvelous strokes. A few days before the final, Lendl had even baldly acknowledged this preference. "Maybe outside of weightlifting, I enjoy staying in shape more than playing tennis," he said. "The best tennis is what I play on my courts with my friends at home. That's really fun. My problem is being motivated at tournaments." Oh. Imagine, if you will, Meryl Streep having problems being motivated on the set, or Andrew Wyeth not getting psyched to paint.

By contrast, Lendl's semifinal victory over Miloslav Mecir, last year's U.S. Open finalist and this year's leading money-winner, was cleverly inspired and brilliantly executed. To the champion it was just this: "It was as if I was doing wind sprints for three hours." Of everything he did in the Wilander match, Lendl said he was most pleased with "my patience."

Another maddening thing about the final was that whichever player took it upon himself to press, to try to win rather than just let the other fellow lose, that player won the set. But the modern male tennis players, who are so well conditioned and finely coached and who play with their state-of-the-art rackets, seem, in effect, to have left the real game—that quaint thing Lendl enjoys playing in private at home—far behind. Becker's homme d'affaires, Ion Tiriac, even reportedly required his young charge to be celibate in a bid for his first clay-court title, BONKING BAN ON BORIS and NO SEX PLEASE, I'M BORIS headlined the London tabloids, warming up across the channel for Chrissie and Andy.

Further, before Paris, Becker was beginning to have to share West Germany with Graf. "Why Steffi Is Better Than Boris" was a recent cover story in Bunte, a major national weekly. At least until Wimbledon, she is better than them all.



A powerful forehand carried 17-year-old Graf to her first Grand Slam championship.



When Navratilova dispatched Evert, it may have been the end of tennis's finest rivalry.



Though Sabatini matches Graf in many ways, she can't seem to beat the West German.



Chris had only herself to blame.



Lendl bored in on Mecir in the semis but was simply a bore against Wilander in the finals.



Becker, legs scabbed from falls, lost more than his shirt in the semis against Wilander.



Wilander was aggressive against Becker but played a waiting game against Lendl.