Thursday, January 15, 2009

BACKSPIN TIME CAPSULE: 1993 Australian Open

(fifth in a series)

"Seles is within range of the Grand Slam which eluded her the last two years. Only Graf and Wimbledon truly stand in her way. And even those two potent forces may not be able to stop her in 1993."

On occasion, you can be both entirely correct AND horrifically wrong... at the same time. Unfortunately, this was one of those times.

It's hard to believe it's been sixteen years since Monica Seles won her third straight Australian Open title in 1993 in what turned out to be her final grand slam appearance before her career and tennis history-altering stabbing in Hamburg in April of that year. But, at the time of the writing of this "Backspin Time Capsule," all things great seemed possible -- inevitable, actually -- for the career of the nineteen year-old then-Yugoslav.

She'd surpassed Steffi Graf to become the top player in the women's game, and had such a lethal stranglehold on the sport (she'd won eight of the last eleven slam titles) that she seemed well on her way to shattering all sorts of long-held records. As Seles had usurped Graf's throne, much as is the case on the men's tour these days with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, everyone was waiting to see what the German's response was going to be. A great, long-standing rivalry seemed to be ready to unfold before our eyes.

Then came Hamburg.

I already covered the possibilities of what might have happened had Seles not been attacked in the original "What If?" back in 2004, and it's still a tantalizing scenario that can't help but be tinged with a touch of sadness and lost opportunity.

Seles finally "officially" closed the book on her Hall of Fame-worthy career last Valentine's Day after having not actually played a tour match in nearly five years while battling to overcome a foot injury. But in 1993, none of that was part of the story. So, here's the great Monica Seles... trapped in amber, the best player in the world:

"It's Deja Vu All Over Again" (January 1993)

Is it just me, or is this just a tad bit familiar? Monica Seles vs. Steffi Graf. Jim Courier vs. Stefan Edberg. Oh, well. Maybe it's just me.

The first grand slam to fall into the college bowl game mindset, the FORD Australian Open, was without Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova; Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl bowed out in the 1st Round; and the oppressive heat threatened to wilt even the hardiest of competitors. Still, the same thing happened at Flinders Park in Melbourne that had happened in Paris and Flushing Meadows recently. For all the talk of the great tennis being played nowadays on the pro level, it still seems as if the same four players appear on a regular basis in most grand slam finals.

#1-seed Monica Seles' 4-6/6-3/6-2 triumph over #2 Steffi Graf was the third slam final between the two in the last four; while #1 Jim Courier's 6-2/6-1/2-6/7-5 demolition of #2 Stefan Edberg was their fourth slam final meeting in the last six.

At least in Seles' case, the events are THIS CLOSE to becoming monotonous. But, in the process, THE new Great Tennis Rivalry may have been born.

In the mid-1980's, tennis gurus were touting Graf and Gabriela Sabatini as the duo which would inevitably replace Navratilova and Chris Evert's dominating matchups. Navratilova and Evert met in fourteen grand slam finals (with Martina holding a 10-4 advantage) in their eighty-match series (Navratilova won forty-three) which stretched from 1973 to '88. But the Graf-Gaby rivalry never really materialized due to Sabatini's slow development and Graf's early overpowering dominance.

Now, more than four years after the Chrissie-Martina Era ended with Evert's retirement, we have unwittingly stumbled into the Monica-Steffi Era. And, this time, the rivalry may have some legs.

Since 1989, Graf holds a 6-4 advantage in the series, but in the four slam final matchups it's Seles who leads 3-1 (including the scintillating 6-2/3-6/10-8 win in the '92 French Open final). Graf, though, has held onto her mastery over Seles at Wimbledon and has thereby prevented her from matching Graf's '88 sweep of the four grand slam titles. THAT is what rivalries are made of.

Seles and Graf came into this final with the German, 23, looking as good as she has in years, and disconcertingly within striking range of Seles' #1 computer ranking despite the 19-year old transplanted Yugoslav's tight grip on the women's tour over the past year and a half.

Going into the match, Graf said that she felt that it would be a "special" final. Well, it WAS special -- but for Seles.

With her famed heart and power, Seles overcame a 1st set loss to trample Graf for her twenty-first consecutive Aussie win (she's undefeated there for her career), her third straight title (tying Graf's 1988-90 run), her seventh slam win in the past nine, and her eighth slam (with a mark of 8-1 in finals) championship overall.

Dominance? You bet. Boring? Not yet, but it's getting close.

When Graf was steamrolling over everyone in the late '80's, women's tennis was a "bore." A bore, that is, until the rest of the field finally caught up to Graf's level of play. Now, the women's game finds itself in the same position. Seles was the woman who caught and surpassed Graf. And the cycle must now begin again.

Can anyone catch Seles?

Sabatini may have peaked already. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is getting better but not a threat for #1. Navratilova is only concentrating on half the grand slams. Mary Joe Fernandez lacks one big weapon. Jennifer Capriati is still experiencing growing pains. And the list goes on and on.

In fact, only Graf appears to have a chance to take the #1 ranking away, and that may be wishful thinking when one considers what got Seles to the top to begin with.

Graf, still living in Bruhl, but without her suffocating father always present to make things difficult for her, is having more fun playing tennis now than she has in years. She's in great shape (over the string of injuries and illnesses, including a case of rubella which kept her out of the Australian Open in '92) and playing her best tennis since she was ranked #1. But, still, she hasn't fully regained the confidence that she once had in spades when the rest in the women's field were simply sacrificial lambs for her slaughterhouse forehand.

Guts and steel-like mental confidence -- that's what has separated Seles from the pack. And no one seems to have the guns to compete in those two very important areas (and that's assuming anyone can come close to matching the fireball power of her groundstrokes -- which isn't likely as of now).

The scary thing is that Seles still thinks she can improve. She wants to develop a more all-court game in which she can become more comfortable at the net.

This match was a microcosm of how quickly Seles has risen to the top.

Graf came out firing in the 1st set as Seles committed nineteen unforced errors, and Graf won 6-4. But, as Graf continued to play very well, it was quite obvious that Seles was playing herself into the match slowly but surely in the 2nd set. The errors became less frequent, Graf started uncharacteristically questioning calls (knowing the importance of EVERY point against Seles), Seles' grunt came out of hibernation and the match was turned. Seles won the set 6-3, and she wasn't looking back.

In the 3rd set, Seles' errors had all but vanished along with Graf's chances. There was nothing Graf could do. Only Seles can beat Seles outside Centre Court Wimbledon, and unless she gives an opponent a break (which is extremely rare) no one has much of a chance. With Graf's final over-anxious forehand, Seles won the set 6-2 and the match was over.

Once more, the Seles guts had prevailed. It's becoming all too common these days.

Seles is within range of the Grand Slam which eluded her the last two years. Only Graf and Wimbledon truly stand in her way. And even those two potent forces may not be able to stop her in 1993.

Courier celebrates with a dip in the Yarra River

Over on the men's side, the familiarity was almost as apparent. But, unlike the women's tour, it wasn't quite so oppressive.

No, the only thing about this match that was oppressive was the heat. It reached upwards of 150-degrees (F) on the court during the match, and even 22-year old, #1-ranked American Jim Courier's notable stamina was questioned.

While the women's side of the tour seems limited to two players fighting it out for #1, the men's side is extremely crowded despite the fact that Courier and 27-year old #2-seed Stefan Edberg have met in four of the last six grand slam finals. Courier is #1, but Edberg is right on his heels along with #3 American Pete Sampras. And that's not even counting Wimbledon champ Andre Agassi, resurfacing Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and a host of other rising stars. The men's tour is thriving like it has not in years. But, still, with Sampras just missing out on his shots to play for #1, Courier and Edberg are left to pound it out in the finals.

In this Aussie final, Courier looked like Edberg.

When Edberg is hot, no one will defeat him. He becomes a wall at the net which cannot be passed. THAT was Courier in this match. The American cruised to 6-2/6-1 wins in the first two sets before Edberg attempted a comeback in the sweltering heat, winning the 3rd at 6-2.

But Courier, playing like the champion that he has become, came back to take the 4th set 7-5 for his second straight Aussie title and his fourth slam championship.

Agassi pulled off the miracle and won Wimbledon last year. Sampras won the U.S. Open three years ago. Michael Chang took the French four years ago. But it is Jim Courier who is the class of the new American battalion -- and he's just settling into that #1 ranking.

The best may still be yet to come.

24...Margaret Smith-Court
22...Steffi Graf
19...Helen Wills-Moody
18...Martina Navratilova
18...Chris Evert
12...Billie Jean King
12...Suzanne Lenglen
9...Serena Williams*
9...Monica Seles
9...Maureen Connolly


I find it interesting that I termed Seles' tour-dominating reign somewhat "boring" back then, but the hope WAS there that Graf would find a way to surge again, change the dynamic, and raise the entire sport as a result.

Needless to say, neither Graf or Wimbledon was able to prevent Seles from pulling off a Grand Slam in '93... but a German lathe operator did. After the stabbing, Seles didn't play another slam event for thirty-one months, and didn't play at all for twenty-seven. After having won eight of the first fourteen slams she entered (and seven of the last nine she'd played), she won just one of the final twenty-four in which she appeared after her comeback.

She reached the U.S. Open final in her first slam back in '95, and won the Australian Open in 1996, but she never really came remotely close to being the consistent force she'd been in her previous incarnation. Power players were more abundant and Seles and Graf weren't nearly as unique. while she was never able to get into the sort of athletic shape she'd been in previously, as her body had changed as she'd matured, out-growing the physique her leaner teen-aged years. More importantly, though, the trauma of the attack seemed to steal away the incredible difference-making heart and desire Seles had shown while rising to #1 in the world. After previously knowing no fear, she'd come all too face-to-face with it... and there was no going back in time.

Seles was 19 when she won her eighth slam in Melbourne. Graf had won eleven at the time. Without Seles around as a rival, Graf won the next four slam titles, and ten of thirteen. She ended her career in 1999 having won twenty-two. In the going-on sixteen years since Seles won Oz in '93 (and again three years later), only Serena Williams has managed to catch her on the all-time career slam title list -- when she won her ninth at the U.S. Open last September, at age 27.

Seles returned to the spotlight, at least somewhat, when she was a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars" last year. It was nice to see her compete. It's too bad she's wasn't more proficient, but then she'd never really been what anyone would call a "graceful" player even in her prime. She was more like a loud freight train barreling down a hill. The dance floor was just too small for her to flourish.

She's currently writing an autobiography, which should be an illuminating read when it's published. The most recent chapter? Well, Seles WAS announced as a 2009 Hall of Fame inductee the very day of this Capsule's posting. Congratulations to her.

As for the men... I said back then that the ATP tour was more exciting at the time because of the chances for so many different players to contend for slam titles (hmmm, sort of sounds like the WTA tour today, doesn't it?). Many of them were Americans.

In fact, 1993 was the start of a golden era for U.S. men's tennis. After being derided early on for not living up to the previous McEnroe/Connors generation, the young men rising to the top in the early 1990's eventually earned the right to be called the BEST group of American players ever.

In 1993, it looked as if Courier was the class of the generation. He'd become #1 and had won four slams before any of the other Americans had won a second. His grinding, physical style shot him to the top first, but it eventually wore him down (maybe even BURNED him out) and made his stay at the elite level a short one. The 1993 Australian Open title turned out to be his final slam win. He reached the finals of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon that season, but never played in another slam final after that. He stuck around until 1999, and reached the Hall of Fame in 2005.

His American contemporaries both outdistanced and outlasted him.

Michael Chang (HOF '08) never won a second slam, but reached #2 in 1996 and appeared in three slam finals (at every slam but Wimbledon) in 1995-96 before his attempt to add more power to his game (remember the extra-long racket?) ultimately began to limit his effectiveness.

Sampras and Agassi, though, became ALL-TIMERS. Agassi won seven more slams from 1994-03 and played until he was 36, reaching the U.S. Open SF in '05 at 35. Sampras won both Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 1993, and claimed thirteen of his all-time record fourteen slam crowns from 1993-02.

The following generation, consisting of the likes or Roddick, Blake, Dent and others, has turned out to be a disappointment. To date, they've won just one slam title -- Roddick's U.S. Open win almost six years ago. The next group of American players, currently led by Sam Querrey, is just beginning to reach the point where their careers will go down the path toward success or disappointment.

While a Hall of Famer, Courier might actually be somewhat underrated and forgotten now. These days, he's known as much as a sometimes-irritating-sometimes-effective tennis commentator as a former #1. His workman-like game might be a good prototype for young American players to try to emulate, though. Rather than relying on one big weapon (ala Roddick), Courier survived on defense and groundstrokes. Rather than wilting in big moments (ala Blake), Courier stood up. Rather than only being a threat on hard courts or grass, Courier was an all-surface player in tremendous condition who might have been at his best on red clay. Needless to say, there aren't very many American men who even come close to being able to say the same at the moment.

But in 1993, Courier and Seles were on top of the tennis world. Their best days seemed ahead of them... but, little did they know, they were actually BEHIND them once they raised their most recent Australian Open trophies. There's NO WAY anyone would have believed it at that moment, either.

Shows you just how fast things can change in the tennis world, doesn't it?

All for now.

PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES: 1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors)

NEXT UP IN 2009: 1989 Roland Garros - Sanchez & Chang shock the world & 1993 Wimbledon - Novotna's collapse


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is great that this championship still takes place in Australia because it motivates people to participate. I heard that taking generic viagra is very good for increasing physical performance.

Mon Jan 03, 03:18:00 PM EST  

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