Wednesday, June 16, 2010


(eleventh in a series)

Over the years, time-honored grand slam singles finalist archetypes have developed and continued to thrive through every tennis era. The names change, but the circumstances remain the same.

A few of them: an aging all-time great is trying to collect yet another major title before the "magic" leaves his or her racket forever, a budding young superstar is seeking a career-defining slam crown to cement their new role as the top player in the game, a talented but underachieving would-be star whose efforts are usually derailed by injury or emotion is trying to finally live up to their career-long promise, and an established champion with a stoic and/or so-called boring persona in comparison to more flashier opponents is attempting to claim the final elusive piece of tennis hardware which will at once both silence their critics and secure a leading place in the sport's history.

Well, the 1987 Wimbledon finals had them all.

In order, it was Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Pat Cash and Ivan Lendl who filled those archetypal roles that year at the All-England Club.

Navratilova was 30 years old at Wimbledon that July. She was still #1 in the world, but found herself in the position of having to gamely fight off the "inevitability" of 18-year old Steffi Graf. The (then-West) German was the oncoming light at the end of a proverbial train tunnel... she was coming fast, and if you valued your life you'd get out of the way while you could. Graf, having won 45 straight matches, would take over the top ranking if she could end Martina's own 40-match All-England Club winning streak to claim her first SW19 crown on the heels of winning her maiden slam championship at Roland Garros one month earlier. Meanwhile, 22-year old Cash was a former Wimbledon boys champ and #1-ranked junior in the world, but a succession of injuries had prevented him from ever living up to his early potential. For one twelve-month period, though, he came close. From January '87 to January '88, he reached three out of five slam finals (Wimbledon was the second in the stretch). Thing is, when he played all four slam events in '87 it turned out to be the only time after his 19th birthday that he managed to do it in a career that saw him play his last slam match at age 32. Lendl, on the other hand, reached EIGHT consecutive U.S. Open finals, lifted three of the four men's title cups (taking multiple titles at each), won nearly one hundred tour titles and spent 270 weeks at #1. But his career-long difficulties on grass courts forever left him underrated by many, as his perceived failure in London overshadowed his success everywhere else, and his off-putting persona and "boring" game (remember, he was playing in an era when personality-plus people named McEnroe and Connors led the way) resulted in Sports Illustrated placing him on the cover under the headline "The Champion That Nobody Cares About."

Flashforward to recent years, and you can see Roger Federer in Navratilova's shoes. His totally dominant years in his rear-view mirror, he now seeks to add major titles to his career trophy case before he is eventually overwhelmed by his younger rivals. A few years ago, assuming Graf's role, it was Rafael Nadal who was the super-talented would-be great trying to respectfully replace the game's current and long-standing #1 player. Federer, as Navratilova did, even seems likely to remain a contender in London long after his opportunities to win any of the other three slams come to an end. Showing just how common this evolution of a great player's career really is, Federer, too, at one time played the Graf/Nadal part when he was first breathing down the neck of Pete Sampras at Wimbledon until he finally defeated him there in 2002 and soon after assumed his mantle as the king of grass court tennis.

The legacy of a Cash-like rise from the ashes of misfortune or self-inflicted downturns is everywhere. In a sense, Andre Agassi's long-awaited breakthrough slam title followed an off-court career path not that dissimilar from the Aussie's, but the American managed to alter the early perception of himself over the course of a long and successful tennis shelf life. Jennifer Capriati's journey from child star to drug arrestee to slam champion, and Jana Novotna's perseverence in outrunning her demons to become a slam champion come to mind, as well. Of course, there are all sorts of POTENTIAL stories like this clanging around the two tours as we speak, looking for the perfect moment to become a part of slam lore. Oh, Nadia?

As for the Lendl part of this equation? Well, there are all sorts of underappreciated good-to-great players. Federer himself finally closed his one career loop-hole in 2009 when he won at Roland Garros. Andy Roddick probably qualifies at this stage of his career, too (giving that 16-14 loss in the 5th set of the Wimbledon final last year some frustrating context). Mostly these days, though, you see Lendl's circumstances in the career paths of players still seeking their first slam in order to solidify their career legacies (and maybe make them Hall of Fame-worthy) -- say, names like Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, or maybe Jelena Jankovic. Even Francesca Schiavone's recent win in Paris might qualify, as that title moment will forever alter the perception of and appreciation for her career and personality. She wasn't a HOF contender before, but with a slam AND her Fed Cup heroics, she now just might be.

But this "Time Capsule" isn't really meant to be a vehicle to discuss current players. I guess we'll have to agree to meet back at Backspin HQ around 2033 to fully get to the bottom of THOSE stories. As for the players from 1987, here's what I said during my summer vacation from school that year about THEM, to no one in particular:

July 4, 1987 - "Navratilova Wins Wimbledon...Again"

When Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf walked off Centre Court today, the former left as a winner and the latter an uncommon loser. Interestingly, though, it was runner-up Graf who left the court with a quiet confidence. She knows she will win there someday. Meanwhile, Ladies' champ Navratilova exited with uneasiness. She has to be wondering just how much longer she will be able to hold off her younger opponent.

Graf will be #1 possibly as soon as September once the U.S. Open is over. Navratilova just postponed the inevitable when she defeated Graf 7-5/6-3 in the Wimbledon final for her forty-first straight win at the All-England Club. Still, Navratilova, unlike Chris Evert and other former contenders, is still capable of winning a grand slam event in 1987. That's what sets her apart from most tennis players who play, like her, at the age of 30. If Navratilova would have lost today this probably would have been her last Wimbledon match. But since she didn't, she will most definitely be back for years to come as she closes in on many Wimbledon records. This was her sixth straight singles title, a new modern day record, and it was her eighth career Ladies singles crown, tying her with Helen Wills-Moody's all-time mark. Another record that is surely within her reach: Billie Jean King's record of twenty combined career Wimbledon titles. She now has sixteen.

Graf's loss ended her forty-five match and seven-tournament winning streak. She failed in her first chance to assume the top ranking, but she has something that Navratilova can only dream about -- youth. In the year 2000, Graf will be only four months older than Navratilova is now. That's scary when you think about it. But her time will come. Graf knows it. Martina knows it, too. They just have differing opinions on when they want it to come about.

Graf won the first point of the match with a blazing passing shot, and she played well during the entire match. She would have beaten 99% of the women on the WTA tour. But this was Navratilova and Wimbledon, a champion and a championship that seem to have been made for each other. Graf survived six break points in the 1st set, including three in a row after being down love/40 in the tenth game. But Navratilova finally broke her on the seventh in game #12 and won the set 7-5. Navratilova pumped her fist in a Connors-like way. She was one set away from ending her long drought of title-less tennis.

The 2nd set was on serve through the first seven games until Graf was broken in the eighth. Navratilova went up 5-3 and has the opportunity to serve for the championship. This time she didn't blow her chance, as she had done in the French Open when she was in the same situation. With the score at 40/30, she hit a good serve, and suddenly it was all over when Graf's forehand hit the net and, unlike Navratilova's four net cord winners, fell helplessly back to her side of the court. Navratilova jumped into the air and flashed a number one sign to the friends box. She had finally one her first tournament of 1987. She then shook the hand of her heiress apprent. Martina had played breathaking tennis, committing just nine unforced errors and allowing her West German opponent just a single break point chance all day.

Graf will get another chance. She said she wants to play Navratilova again, and she's not afriad to do it. You can be sure of that. Navratilova's record of six straight titles may never be broken, but if it is Graf will probably be the one to do it. Her first could very well come next year.

When Navratilova and Graf were walking off Centre Court, Graf smiled and asked her, "How many more do you want?" Without skipping a beat, Navratilova replied, "Nine is my lucky number."

July 5, 1987 - "The Czech was Bounced by Cash"

This was a match that was heartbreaking for one man while it was a dream come true for another. Patrick Hart Cash, Jr., 22, the Aussie who admits he would rather lie on the beach, drink, get a tan and weigh 270 pounds defeated Ivan Lendl for his first Wimbledon championship 7-6(5)/6-2/7-5.

Even though Cash lost only one set in the fortnight this victory would have to be considered something of a comeback. On June 24, 1985 he was ranked #7 in the world, but he began to have back problems and eventually would be out of action for seven months after surgery on a herniated disk. He then had an emergency appendectomy seventeen days before last year's Wimbledon. With his world ranking having plummeted to #413, he accepted a wild card entry into the '86 Championships that was offered mainly because of his popularity with the London punk rocker girls who screamed at every move he made. He ended up making the quarterfinals before his legs tired.

Before this fortnight, Pat Cash was known chiefly for his temper (even though he had made the Wimbledon semis in 1984 and lost the final of the Australian Open in January) and being severely criticized by former Aussie players and the Australian press for his antics on the court that were so different from the reserved champions from Down Under in the past. He was so angry at the '84 U.S. Open that he threw his racket into the crowd and then claimed that he was just tossing it to a fan. And even though he says he matured during his long absence from the game, he threw a punch at a TV cameraman after a Davis Cup practice in December. What can you expect from a man who says his favorite tennis player has always been John McEnroe?

Cash's remarks about women's tennis following the French Open lost him many of his young fans, so he advanced through the rounds this year without much fanfare. He reportedly called the women's game "rubbish," and "overpaid junk" and wondered aloud why anyone would bother to watch it. He has since said he was misquoted. But, by then, the damage has already been done.

No matter how people feel about Cash, you have to commend him for his performance here. He kept his temper under control and played the tournament of his life. In winning he became only the second Wimbledon junior champ (Bjorn Borg is the other) to win the Gentlemen's crown, and the first Australian man to win the title since John Newcombe in 1971. He was also the first Aussie man to win a slam event of any kind since Mark Edmondson won the Australian Open in 1976.

The 1st set was on serve at 6-6. Cash had breezed through his service games, while Lendl had struggled. Cash took a 6-1 lead in the tie-break, and went on to win it 7-5 to claim the set. In the 2nd set, Cash broke Lendl in game #3, then again in #5 after Lendl double-faulted three times. The Czech slammed down his racket after he had a second DF in a row. Cash was up 4-1. He won the 2nd at 6-2, but the most amazing fact was that he allowed Lendl zero points on his serve in the entire set.

In game #4 of the 3rd set, Lendl had his first break point opportunity of the by-then two-hour long match. He locked away the break and eventually took 4-1 and 5-3 leads. But in game #9, Lendl once again double-faulted, this time on break point, and it was 5-4. Cash would get a break once again two games later, then easily held his own serve at love to claim the set at 7-5 and take the title. He raised his arms in triumph after a brilliant performance.

But then Cash broke Wimbledon tradition, as you could expect from a man with a diamond stud in his ear. He immediately ran off Centre Court and into the stands. He climbed up ten rows and over the television booth, into the friends box, to share his victory with the people closest to him. The first person he hugged was his dad, Pat Sr., and it was a truly touching moment. To coach Ian Barclay, he said, "We f---ing showed them."

"To be honest, holding the cup up to photographers wasn't what I wanted to do then. I just wanted to get off the court and see the people that meant the most to me." - Cash

Through all of this, Lendl, 27, had to sit and watch and ponder another loss in a Wimbledon final, his second in a row. He lost to Boris Becker in three sets last year, and vowed that he would win in '87. He played well this time around, and when two-time defending champ Becker was stunned by Peter Doohan in the 2nd Round it seemed as if this would be the year he would do it. But it wasn't meant to be, as he ran into a steamroller named Cash. Lendl has yet to win a major tournament on grass and today he once again showed that even though he is the #1 player in the world he is just an above average player on grass, as his "manufactured" grass court game was totally outclassed by Cash's more natural moves. Lendl has gone through this type of adversity before -- it took him four slam final losses before he won his first three years ago in Paris -- and it seems as if it's happening all over again at Wimbledon. Whether it be his personality or his failure to win big matches there always seems to be something in his way that prevents him from being what he CAN be -- one of the greatest players of all time.

"I believe at presentations the second one shouldn't be there. He should just be allowed to leave. It's a miserable feeling." - Lendl

Lendl made the Wimbledon semis in '83 and '84, then the final the last two seasons, and is making slow but steady progress on the grass. He so desperately wants to win here because he feels that he must in order to be considered one of the best in the game's history. But, as Lendl notes, "(Ken) Rosewall didn't win here, but everyone would agree that he was a great." He offered to give up every other match win in 1987 for a victory at Wimbledon. He says he will "win it or die first," and you can believe that he will push himself even more next year than he did the last to achieve his lofty dream.

But even though you can feel sorry for Lendl, you can also feel good for Cash. For he deserved to be the Wimbledon champion this year. No doubt about it.

...Graf truly WAS a player on the verge of a "hostile takeover" of the WTA tour. She finally replaced Navratilova at #1 six weeks after the Wimbledon final, but lost to her once again in the U.S. Open final. No matter. She simply went out in 1988 and won ALL FOUR slams, plus the Olympic Gold in Seoul to complete her "Golden Slam" season. She won seven of eight slams in 1988-89, defeating Navratilova in the Wimbledon final both seasons as she grabbed seven of the next nine Ladies' championship crowns.

I noted in '87 as Navratilova was winning her record sixth straight SW19 title that maybe only Graf might ever be able to break or equal the mark. She almost did, too. From 1988-93, the only year that interrupted what might have been her own six-straight run was 1990, when she lost to Zina Garrison in the semifinals. Naturally, Navratilova then proceeded to defeat the American in the final for her record-breaking ninth Wimbledon title.

So, I guess Navratilova was dead-on accurate when she only half-jokingly told Graf that her "lucky number" was nine.

Graf went on to win twenty-two slam titles. Injuries led to a late-career three-year slam title drought that finally ended when she won her final slam title in 1999 at Roland Garros just before her own thirtieth birthday. She reached the Wimbledon final a month later, losing to Lindsay Davenport, then retired before the start of the U.S. Open that August. I had mentioned that in the year 2000 Graf would be just four months younger than Navratilova was in 1987. As it turned out, though, Graf's career ended before the 1990's were officially over.

But Navratilova's didn't.

Martina retired from singles in 1994, but continued to play doubles until 1996. After being away from the tour from 1997-99, she returned as a full-time doubles player in '00 at age 43. For short periods, usually during grass court season, Navratilova even returned to play some singles at a few events in 2002 and '04-'05. She even won a 1st Round match at Wimbledon in '04, becoming the oldest grand slam match winner in WTA history at 47. In 2003, she won the Mixed Doubles with Leander Paes to tie Billie Jean King's career Wimbledon title total of twenty (she'd shared the Ladies' Doubles title with BJK in '79).

In 2006, Navratilova won her final title in her final career event, taking the U.S. Open Mixed Doubles with Bob Bryan. Just five weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, she was the oldest women's slam champion in history. Her final retirement became official after the match, which took place more than eighteen years after she'd won that Wimbledon title in '87 -- which would have literally been a lifetime away for the then-18 year old Graf.

Cash, who lost a single set while winning the Wimbledon title, is still remembered for his famous checkered headband and groundbreaking climb into the stands. It's become tennis' version of the Gatorade bucket dump that originated with the New York Giants' Super Bowl run around the same period, and both have become victorious traditions in the twenty-plus years since. Both were born in spur-of-the-moment fits of jubilation, but now seem rote, obligatory and often tired, going-through-the-motions celebrations (Schiavone at Roland Garros being a rare exception.) I suppose those climbs will continue forever... or at least until a player falls and breaks a leg/separates a shoulder en route to the friends box.

As far as his actual tennis accomplishments, Cash's junior career was sterling. He was the world #1 and the Boys runner-up at the Australian Open in 1981, then won both junior slams at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in '82. Aside from his '87 Wimbledon final, his other two slam final appearances both came at the Australian Open in 1987 and '88, the former the last time the event was played on grass courts and the latter the first at the current Melbourne Park hard court site. Both were five-set losses, to Stefan Edberg in '87 and Mats Wilander a year later in an 8-6 final set that was (and still is) the longest in a Men's final in Oz since Rod Laver defeated Neale Fraser in another 8-6 final set in 1960. That same match was the first grand slam final contested indoors, as well, when the stadium roof was closed during the match because of rain.

Cash reached a career-high of #4 during the '88 season, but he only finished in the year-end Top 10 twice ('84 & '87) in his career. After reaching the QF during his Wimbledon title defense in '88, he never advanced that far in a slam again. Due to a succession of injuries that included the aforementioned back injury, knee problems and an Achilles' tendon tear, Cash's career will forever be one riddled with "what if's." He only won seven singles titles during his career, the last coming in 1990. After Wimbledon in '88, Cash was able to appear in only thirteen more slams until he retired for good in 1997. His final slam match came at Wimbledon that season, ten years after his career had reached its ultimate zenith. He suffered a 1st Round loss.

Since his career ended, Cash has lived mostly in London. He has been a coach, a television commentator (always opinionated, and usually ruffling feathers), a rock musician, and even was the tennis instructor for actors Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany during the filming of the "Wimbledon" movie.

Cash may have been a Wimbledon champion, but Lendl's career surpassed the Aussie's by miles and miles.

The Czech-born Lendl won eight career slams, played in nineteen slam finals (at least one in eleven consecutive seasons from 1981-91), won 94 tour singles titles (second all-time), reached ten consecutive slam SF from 1985-88 (behind only Federer's just-ended string of twenty-three), won forty-four straight matches in 1981-82 (second to Guillermo Vilas' record of 46), appeared in nine consecutive Masters Cup finals (winning five), was ranked #1 for a then-record 270 weeks and retired as the all-time leader in career earnings.

Lendl is still alive and well, but in spite of his "win it or die first" promise, he never did win Wimbledon. After at first being put off-balance by the bad bounces (on the softer and more worn lawns compared to the more-true All-England Club lawns of today) of grass courts, his less-than-natural volleys, sometimes-inconsistent (though often big) serve and his own inclination to resent the surface (he said it was for cows, and alleged that he was allergic to grass -- then was seen soon after playing golf), Lendl worked hard to make himself a good grass court player. He even skipped Roland Garros twice in order to get extra practice time in preparation for the grass season. But there was always someone better than him at SW19... and usually ONLY one. From 1983-90, Lendl was defeated five times by the eventual champion. After his back-to-back finals in '86-'87, he reached the semis from '88-'90, but lost each year to either Boris Becker (twice) or Edberg as that duo faced off in three consecutive finals (I did a "Time Capsule" on their third meeting, by the way).

Unfortunately, that bad luck of the draw has served to help make Lendl one of the more forgotten great players of the past twenty-five years. He was never as brash and/or entertaining as Connors or McEnroe, nor as engaging/exciting as Becker, and he probably-unfairly developed a reputation for coming up short in big matches. Even arguably his most famous victory, in the '84 Roland Garros final, is known more for the fact that McEnroe lost a two sets to none lead on the only surface on which the American never won a slam rather than for the fact that Lendl came back from 0-2 down to claim his first slam title after going winless in his first four attempts. No matter that his big-hitting baseline game and training techniques paved the way for the generation of players that followed, he was destined to pale in comparison to the bigger "stars" in the sport even while he was the dominant figure on tour. If he'd been able to complete a career grand slam by winning Wimbledon he might have been able to outlive and outrun those comparisons and win out over them in the end, but it never quite happened for him. He finally retired due to back problems in 1994.

Navratilova ('00), Graf ('04) and Lendl ('01) have all since been elected to the Tennis Hall of Fame. Cash has not... but the imitation-is-the-most-sincere-form-of-flattery reminders of his climb into the Centre Court stands, replicated at the conclusion of nearly every slam final, continues to stand as one of the coolest of sports legacies, don't you think?

And that, plus a Wimbledon title, ain't so bad.

8...Helen Wills-Moody
7...Dorothea Lambert Chambers
[Open era]
5...Venus Williams
4...Billie Jean King

20...Billie Jean King [6/10/4]
19...Elizabeth Ryan [0/12/7]

3...MARTINA NAVRATILOVA (1987-90, ages 30-33)
3...Margaret Court (1973, ages 30-31)
2...Chris Evert (1985-86, ages 30-31)
2...Billie Jean King (1974-75, ages 30-31)
1...Ann Haydon Jones (1969, age 30)
1...Virginia Wade (1977, age 31)

260...Chris Evert
209...Martina Hingis

24...Margaret Court
19...Helen Wills-Moody
18...Chris Evert
12...Billie Jean King
12...Suzanne Lenglen
12...Serena Williams

[Open era]
1968 Rod Laver
1969 Rod Laver
1970 John Newcombe
1971 John Newcombe
2002 Lleyton Hewitt

109...Jimmy Connors
77...John McEnroe
64...Pete Sampras
62...Roger Federer
62...Bjorn Borg
62...Guillermo Vilas
60...Andre Agassi

286...Pete Sampras
285...Roger Federer
268...Jimmy Connors
170...John McEnroe

237...Roger Federer, 2004-08
160...Jimmy Connors, 1974-77
157...IVAN LENDL, 1983-88
102...Pete Sampras, 1993-95

All for now.

1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez/Chang), 1990 Roland Garros (Seles/Gomez), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna), 2003 & '05 U.S. Open (Henin/Clijsters), 2001-09 Australian Open (Dokic Down Under)

NEXT: 2006 U.S. Open: More Than Just Exquisite in the City


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Sat Jun 19, 09:10:00 AM EDT  

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