BACKSPIN TIME CAPSULE: 1989 Wimbledon
(fifteenth in a series)
Steffi Graf and Boris Becker are two of the greatest players that Wimbledon has ever known. When the West Germans shared the spotlight as singles champions in 1989, fittingly winning titles on the same day, it seemed as if we were about to enter a period in which their shared dance at the All-England Club's Champion's Ball would become an annual rite of summer.
While we are at times surprised by what happens on the court, it's also true that we can be just as astonished by what somehow manages to NOT happen. Nothing is ever a "sure thing" in tennis (well, other than maybe Esther Vergeer winning every match she plays, of course), so the prospect of the same two players who've known each other all their lives combining to win fourteen matches at the same slam in the same year, over and over again, shouldn't have ever seemed to be an easily repeatable feat. But when over the course of their playing days the two individuals in question combine to win 28 slams in 41 slam final appearances, with both shining their brightest at Wimbledon (going 10-6 in championship matches), as was the case with Graf and Becker, one would assume that they would have HAD to have served as "co-champions" in London on several occasions during their Hall of Fame careers.
Both Graf and Becker would go on to great -- and sometimes ever bigger -- things after Wimbledon '89, but that one fortnight turned out to the most "special" for the two West German tots who hit together on practice courts before either had turned 10 years of age. One year after they'd tried and failed to sweep the Wimbledon singles finals in '88, here's what I said as they made their second attempt:
July 1989 - "Graf and Becker Transform Centre Court Into West Germany-for-a-Day"
On a day that is truly unique in Wimbledon history, the tennis world revolved around not only spacious and grand Centre Court -- which is not in the least unusual -- but also an area in southwestern West Germany. It's something which may become more and more commonplace as the years roll by.
Thanks to that annual rite of the Championships (as the British call them) -- no, not the over-priced strawberries and cream, nor the rain -- both the Gentlemen's and Ladies' singles championships were held on the same day for the first time since 1973, and for only the third time ever. But unlike in '73, when American Billie Jean King and Czech Jan Kodes were crowned king and queen of tennis, the 1989 champions can also be dubbed the unofficial King and Queen of West Germany.
In an uncommon twist of fate, West German compatriots Steffi Graf (for the second consecutive year) and Boris Becker (for the third time in five) both emerged from the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Cub's 103rd championships as well-deserving titlists. It's the first time since 1984 that both champs came from the same country (when the USA's Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe won), but oddity added to the mix is the fact that Graf grew up in Bruhl and Becker in Leimen, which are just six miles apart from each other. In fact, the two hit together often (when Becker was 9 and Graf just 7) because, as Becker said, "the worst boy always had to hit with the best girl."
Some things change, and some remain the same.
In the Ladies' final, Graf met 32-year old, eight-time champion Navratilova for the third straight year. It was the first meeting between the world's top two women players since the '88 Wimbledon final in which Graf defeated Navratilova 5-7/6-1/6-2. Since that historic meeting in which Graf affirmed that she was THE star of the women's game, many changes had occurred. Graf went on to achieve the rare Grand Slam at age 19 in a rather easy and mundane manner as she strengthened her already-tight stranglehold on her sport -- a veil of invicibility that did not waver until Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario's victory over her in last month's French Open final.
As a result of the French Open loss, Graf entered this tournament and final with vengeance and redemption on her mind. Graf's drive to re-establish herself (even though this final appearance was her tenth straight in a slam, and that she had only lost seven times in 206 matches over the last three years). Without the pressure of a possible Double Grand Slam, Graf appeared more relaxed all tournament, as she hadn't dropped a set over the course of the fortnight.
For Navratilova, the pressure of the onslaught of Graf made for a trying past year for the former #1 player. She hasn't won a slam event since the U.S. Open in '87 and has concentrated all year on a rematch with the West German. She may have concentrated TOO much, as she often lost to lesser opponents as her thoughts were focused elsewhere on the 20-year old Graf. Navratilova even skipped the French Open and brought in former Wimbledon champ King as an advisor in an attempt to be keyed for Wimbledon and another shot at breaking her tie with Helen Wills-Moody with eight career titles. For Navratilova, this tournament is now the most important of all and the one that she is dying to win just one more time -- for she knows how special that win would be.
At one point in the match, it looked as if Navratilova actually did have a chance to churn one more title out of her body as she dealt Graf her first lost set of the tournament and tied the match at one set apiece. But that glimmer of hope turned to be just that as, reminiscent of the '88 final, Graf's speed, serve (she missed just four 1st serves in the 3rd set), and rumbling forehand wrestled away the match from the Czechoslovakian-born Texan. The final nails were pounded into the coffin when Navratilova, down 1-3 in the 3rd set, had a break point to get the match back on serve. She had the volley to do the deed on her racket, but pushed the ball past the baseline to blow her final chance to walk away with the championship plate. Graf's ace on match point was a fitting ending to a tournament in which she proved once again why she is the ruling dictator of women's tennis. The final scoreline of 6-2/6-7(1)/6-1 told the story of Graf's sixth grand slam win in seven finals. But the tears that she held back after the match tell the even greater story of a young woman who is only beginning to take her place amongst the greats of the game.
After the match, Navratilova admitted, "I did everything I could, and I got beat. She served me off the court." Comments of that nature would have been shocking to hear from Navratilova as little as three or four years ago when she herself was unstoppable, but they are now becoming commonplace where Graf is concerned. It appears as if Navratilova's time to win her ninth crown is fading fast and, possibly, may already be history. In fact, Graf may get to the immortal number #9 before Navratilova does. Oh, say about... 1996?
** ** ** ** **
After compatriot Graf had taken the Ladies' title, 21-year old Boris Becker took on 23-year old Swede Stefan Edberg, the '88 Wimbledon champ, in a repeat of last year's final as he attempted to turn Centre Court into "West Germany-for-a-day."
Other than the fact that they are the two best grass court players in the world, the two finalists have very little in common. Becker, who lives the high life in Monte Carlo and enjoys his place in the spotlight, stands in stark contrast to Edberg, who lives rather anonymously in London despite being the #3 player in the world and having won the biggest tournament in tennis just one year ago. Becker has had numerous run-ins in the past two years with the Wimlbedon establishment concerning the tournament's strict rules of conduct and seeming "unfairness" to lesser-ranked players; while Edberg would rather move quietly through the tournament (which he has done the past two years) and play his matches without much fanfare -- which is why his disparaging comments after the French Open about women's tennis were quite shocking, especially considering they came from HIS mouth. But don't get me wrong, both handle their completely different lives just the way they want to, and do so quite well, in fact.
In the '88 final, Edberg was a human backboard as every shot that Becker put up was pounded back by an Edberg volley. Just one month ago, Edberg ousted Becker in the semis of the French Open. Thus, one would have expected a fine, competitive final since both men had pretty much had their way with the rest of the men's field the past two weeks (except for a brief period for Becker against Ivan Lendl). No one expected that Becker would show up in tights and a cape with a big "S" on his chest -- or at least it seemed as if he did. Too bad there wasn't a phone booth on Centre Court to give the action a final, fitting touch. Unfortunately for Edberg, Kryptonite was nowhere to be found, either.
In a display of tennis that will go down in memory as astonishing, Becker dominated the 1st set like he never has before on such an occasion. Like maybe no one ever has. He was here, there, and everywhere as Edberg's shots were virtually useless against the West German's barrage of power, touch, and maybe a little bit of magic. Becker bashed Edberg 6-0 in just twenty-two minutes as the men's final at Wimbledon started with a love set for the first time since 1923. The Swede won just ten points in the set and, even more incredibly, only four on his own serve. Becker's mastery showed just how good he CAN be on the grass... and it was a scary display indeed.
Becker's almost surreal Wimbledon mystique (30-3 in his career, 17-1 on Centre Court) appeared once again in the 2nd set with Edberg serving up 6-5 and 40/love as Becker ripped off five straight points -- with the help of three consecutive volley errors by Edberg off three blistering Becker groundstrokes -- to steal the game and the set, as he took the proceeding tie-break 7-1, ending the set by winning twelve of the final thirteen points. But Becker not only stole the set with his magical display, he also stole the momentum and, in effect, put the championship on ice as he won the 3rd set to close out the match 6-0/7-6(1)/6-4. Becker thrust his arm in the air after match point and held his finger up stating that he was "#1" for a few seconds. After shaking Edberg's hand, he threw his racket into the stands with a mighty heave. Becker said that his racked was now "gone with the wind." Sounds like the way that Edberg went in this match.
Edberg was always just a few inches off as he could not regain the expertise that he showed in the semis versus John McEnroe, but if he had played better and still lost to the incredible West German he probably would have been more disheartened. This is the second grand slam final Edberg has lost in the past month, though, and it makes one wonder if those rumors of his "lack of heart" (which finally disappeared after last year's Wimbledon title) will start to pop up again. Just a thought.
Becker now joins rather select company as only the fifth (with Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, John Newcombe and McEnroe) to win three Wimbledon titles since World War II. But Becker may prove to accomplish the most of the lot as, at 21, he's the youngest to achieve that feat. Just think of it. He's barely of U.S. drinking age and he's already appeared in four Wimbledon finals in five years, and if he hadn't met up with Peter Doohan (in '87) and a broken ankle (in '84) he may have already accomplished seemingly unattainable success. How many times will Becker's name go onto the list of champions at Wimbledon is anybody's guess, but since he appears to be getting better each year the best may be yet to come. But Becker's not infallible on Centre Court. He DID manage to drop the championship cup after the match, after all... even if it did look a little bit like a comedy routine gone awry.
Becker stated after the match that he and Graf may not realize how special and rare it is for both to win here in the same year until they are a grandfather and grandmother, and that it may NEVER happen again. Here's a free tip for you, Mr. Rose... don't bet on that happening. This celebration could become as yearly a rite in England as those over-priced strawberries and cream and, of course, the rain have become.
...those last few lines are precisely why, aside from the occasional Triple Crown race, I'm not a gambler.
Over the course of long careers, even the greats of the sport can leave something "on the table" that the imagination had cooked up early on as a realistic outcome. For Graf, off-court issues with her father Peter, the rise of Monica Seles and, ultimately, late-career injuries (including knee surgery that kept her away for nearly a year) advsersely effected a career that STILL ended up garnering twenty-two slam titles. For Becker, Edberg's natural proficiency on the grass, and then later Pete Sampras', along with possibly a lifestyle that sometimes made tennis a "secondary" vocation in his life, ended up keeping his career slam totals slightly lower than they otherwise could have been. But maybe the biggest "what could have been" for this then-West German pair revolves around their inability to repeat the sweep of the Ladies' and Gentlemen's titles they pulled off in '89, which was the first co-opting of both crowns by players from the same European nation since 1925.
There was every reason to believe it'd happen again. It almost did, too. But while Becker achieved arguably his "greatest" career heights after winning Wimbledon in '89, he never won another SW19 title. As I sort of theorized back then, Graf's final crown DID come in 1996, but her fifth title over the following seven years ended up giving her seven championships for her career (she missed out on her shot for #8 in the '99 final). In all, Graf and Becker were both Wimbledon final participants in all eight matches played from 1988-91. 1989 wasn't the last all-German sweep of the titles, though, as Graf and Michael Stich were "co-champions" two years later. But it wasn't the same. Wimbledon turned out to be a truly special place for both kids from Bruhl and Leimen, though, as at least one of the two appeared in either the men's or women's final for nine straight years from 1985-93, and 11-of-12 and 12-of-15 until they both made their final appearances at the tournament in '99. Both won more major titles in London than they did in any of the other three grand slam cities.
As great a Wimbledon champ as Becker was in his youth -- winning at age 17, 18 and 21 -- he was ultimately passed by in the proceeding years by Pete Sampras, who won seven titles (defeating Becker in the '95 final), and Roger Federer, who has so far claimed six. Eras are demarcated at Wimbledon like at no other slam, and Becker's (one he shared with Edberg, really) is nestled in the tight crevice between that of Borg/McEnroe and the later Sampras/Federer-Nadal periods of domination. Graf never caught Navratilova, who finally broke her tie with Wills-Moody's with win #9 in '90, and bowed out one year before the Williams Sisters began their decade-plus domination of the Wimbledon women's final.
Still, nothing can ever dissolve the remarkle occurrence in '89 when the sport's two most dynamic performers, one with a "ruthless dictator"-like forehand that bludgeoned the women's game into submission and the other with a devil-may-care charismatic style, simultaneously rose to the top of their games within the span of a single fortnight. Rather than the start of something bigger, it turned out to be a simple snapshot of a moment in time. So be it. It was still great.
It's interesting to note, as history ultimately changed how one would view what the two West Germans accomplished that July afternoon, so did other things that happened back home change things far more. As the summer, and later fall, wore on in eastern Europe in '89, a tidal wave of political change -- some violent, some shockingly peaceful -- swept across the continent, leading to the collapse of the Communist governments of Eastern Bloc nations such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. After months of civil unrest, in November, the East German government finally succumbed and announced that citizens in oppressed East Berlin could visit the free streets of West Berlin.
Almost immediately, citizens on both sides of the Berlin Wall scaled the world's most horrific symbol of the Cold War, without reprisal (and, often, death at the hands of East German security guards) for the first time since its construction had divided the city nearly thirty years earlier. It was a wild, joyful scene as many people danced and literally took sledgehammers to the hated, tangible evidence of Soviet-supported totalitarianism. In October '90, the two Germanys were unified once again for the first time since World War II. The next year, the final act in the overall drama came when the U.S.S.R. itself fell, with Boris Yeltsin rising to power after literally standing tall against the forces of the Kremlin from atop a tank.
On a side note, the political developments likely played a large part in tennis. Without the binding restrictions of the state-run sports institutions, the rise the eastern European tennis player -- especially in women's tennis -- was allowed to advance without the limitations of national boundaries, as players could strike out on their own without needing state approval (and some, with the economic growing pains that resulted from the upheaval, used tennis as their best, and sometimes only, way to lift the fortunes of themselves and their families). It's probably no coincidence that within a generation of the summer '89, the tennis rankings have come to be dominated by many players from eastern Europe hailing from places that weren't even official nations twenty-two years ago, or that the Russian tennis revolution completely changed the landscape of the WTA a little more than a decade after the tennis-loving Yeltsin assumed leadership.
But that's a "time capsule" of another nature altogether, isn't it?
As far as Becker and Graf are concerned, 1989 was right in the middle of their primes. That summer turned out to be Becker's greatest, as he followed up his Wimbledon crown by winning the U.S. Open. Graf, after having lost in the Roland Garros final a month earlier, used her seven-match mastery at Wimbledon as a stepping stole for one of the greatest runs in women's tennis history. After winning those seven matches, she'd win her next 59, as well. The 66-match streak is behind only Navratilova's 74-match run in '84 on the WTA's all-time list. Graf's next loss was to Monica Seles in Berlin... in May of 1990. During the same period, she put together an 82-match hard court winning streak from 1988-90 that is still the best ever. After her "Golden Slam" year of '88 when she swept all four slams and won Olympic Gold, going 76-3 overall, Graf was actually BETTER in '89. Her 86-2 mark (.977) is the second-best in terms of winning percentage in the Open era, behind only Navratilova's 86-1 (.989) season in 1983.
After losing to Seles in Berlin, Graf's next defeat came in her following tournament, when she again lost to the Yugoslav in the Roland Garros final in' 90. At that point, the seat of power in women's tennis turned away from Graf, only to turn back to her three years later when Seles was stabbed by a crazed Graf fan during a mid-match changeover in, where else (and unfortunately so), Germany. With Seles removed as a legit threat, though the former #1 was easily at her least effective on the grass (though, like Rafael Nadal successfully did many years after her, Seles was slowly but surely seeming to learn to play on the surface), Graf won half or her 22 slam titles after the attack -- including three of her Wimbledon crowns -- and even followed up her true Grand Slam by pulling off a "SteffiSlam" (though nobody called it that back then) by winning four consecutive non-calendar year majors in 1993-94.
After being the youngest man to ever win Wimbledon -- at 17 years, 227 days -- in '85, then defending the title a year later, Becker ultimately went on to post a 71-12 career mark at the tournament from 1984-99. His next-highest slam match win total was at the U.S. Open, where he won 37 matches. He reached, but lost, the Wimbledon final in '90 and '91 after winning the '89 title, as he'd reached six finals in seven years at that point. He reached one more, losing to Sampras in '95 in the middle of the American's seven-titles-in-eight-years stretch of his own. After '89, Becker had more ultimate success at the other slams. After winning the Open in '89, he twice claimed the title at the Australian ('91 & '96) and briefly replaced Edberg in the #1 ranking after his win in Melbourne in January '91. His career goal met with the top ranking, his drive was never quite the same after that. He didn't push to stay in the spot, and only held it for twelve weeks. In all, he reached ten slams finals, winning six. Following a Wimbledon QF loss to Sampras in '97, Becker privately told him at the net that he'd just played his last match at the tournament, then announced his retirement. He held to it, for a while. He returned for one final slam turn at Wimbledon two years later, losing in the 4th Round to Patrick Rafter. Becker won 49 ATP titles during his career, still good for tenth on the all-time list, finished in the Top 5 eight consecutive years, and was Top 10 for all but one season (#11 in '93) from 1985-96.
As '99 was the year of Becker's last Wimbledon, it was also Graf's. After successfully making a comeback from June '97 knee surgery that kept her off tour for nearly a year, a 29-year old Graf won her final slam -- and her first in two and a half years -- at Roland Garros in '99, then reached the Wimbledon final a month later, losing to Lindsay Davenport. She never played another slam match, retiring two weeks before the start of the U.S. Open after losing a match to Amy Frazier in San Diego. Becker was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003, and Graf followed him there in 2004.
As I said earlier, Navratilova won her record ninth Wimbledon title in 1990, then reached the '94 final at age 37. Stunningly, she played her final Wimbledon singles match ten years later in 2004, at age 47 (and after having notched a 1st Round victory). As it turned out, her 2nd Round loss was her worst at SW19 since she lost in the 1st Round... in 1974, thirty years earlier at age 17.
After Borg/McEnroe, and before Federer/Nadal, the "elegance vs. charisma" match-up between the fluid Edberg's classic serve-and-volley game and Becker's pulverizing version of his own was THE best men's rivalry within the walls of the All-England Club. Even with their dueling serve-and-volley styles, they were polar opposites in nearly every way. While Becker's game was loud and proud, often punctuated by him angrily admonishing himself in German between points, Edberg's was graceful and quiet. I can still remember watching the Swede play and having multiple points go by with hardly a sound being made as his racket struck multiple balls for volley winners, his smooth athleticism making things look beautiful and oh-so-routine at the same time. Probably the player whose game has most resembled his in recent years was that of the now-retired Amelie Mauresmo, a player who also created her most wonderful masterpiece on the grass at Wimbledon (in '06). While Becker led Edberg 25-10 in career meetings, their trilogy of finals at Wimbledon -- they're still tied with Federer/Nadal as the only men to ever meet in the final three straight years at the same slam -- from 1988-90 still stands the test of time. I've already posted a "Time Capsule" for their five-set '90 final, and one for '88 is still "doing push-ups in the corner" and will show up here some day, as well. After he won Wimbledon in 2009, even Roger Federer cited the Edberg/Becker clashes in London as his inspiration for choosing to make his atheltic mark in tennis rather than soccer. In all, Edberg won 41 ATP titles, including two each at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, and was ranked #1 for a total of 72 weeks. The silhouette of a portion of his unique service motion is currently being used in the logo for the Australian Open.
Personally, for me, Becker was the first tennis star of my own generation. The redhead throwing his body all over the All-England Club's lawns, booming serves and celebrating with a kid's exuberance, changed everything for me and made me truly love the sport, and plug myself into its future. By defending his title at 18, he showed me what a "real champion" does. And his thoughtful, philosophical and often "tortured" utterences both off court and on made me view the sport as something slightly more than just a simple game. In '87, he also introduced me to the crushingly personal nature of an early-round upset that no one saw coming. Peter Doohan... I still curse your name. For me, Becker was my biggest stepping stone into the heart of the sport, and he's the main reason -- well, him and NBC's "Breakfast at Wimbledon" -- why I've always viewed Wimbledon as my favorite of the slams... a notion only backed up by the SW19 climbs of my other two "most-honored" players, Jana Novotna and Jelena Dokic.
It's no surprise that the oldest tennis writings that I have are from when I recapped the '86 Wimbledon at which Becker won his second slam title. In fact, my all-time favorite single shot involved Becker, and it occurred at that tournament. Hoping to find what I said about it back then, I went back and looked, and here's what I found:
"And, of course, there was 'The Shot' by Boris Becker in the men's final just two points before he became a two-time Wimbledon champ by defeating Ivan Lendl. It happened on a rally in which Lendl chased down a shot in the right corner of the court and hit it back to Becker, who jumped for the ball at the net and landed on his stomach, only to see the ball catch the net cord, then also just catch the line. Becker then made what may have been the best shot in Wimbledon history look easy, as he lifted up his racquet while still lying on the ground and, with a short backhand flip, lifted the ball over the net for the winner. He then stood and gave us all his 'Becker Boogie' to show us his delight."
Just thinking about that shot still makes me smile. The Becker "mystique" is still there.
*CAREER SLAM TITLES - WOMEN*
19...Helen Wills Moody
12...Billie Jean King
*CAREER WIMBLEDON TITLES - WOMEN*
8...Helen Wills Moody
7...Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers
4...Billie Jean King
*CAREER WTA TITLES*
*LONG WTA MATCH WIN STREAKS*
74...Martina Navratilova, 1984
66...STEFFI GRAF, 1989-90
58...Martina Navratilova, 1986-87
57...Margaret Court, 1972-73
55...Chris Evert, 1974
*GRAF - WIMBLEDON FINALS*
1987 lost to Martina Navratilova
1988 def. Martina Navratilova
1989 def. Martina Navratilova
1991 def. Gabriela Sabatini
1992 def. Monica Seles
1993 def. Jana Novotna
1995 def. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
1996 def. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
1999 lost to Lindsay Davenport
*BECKER - WIMBLEDON FINALS*
1985 def. Kevin Curren
1986 def. Ivan Lendl
1988 lost to Stefan Edberg
1989 def. Stefan Edberg
1990 lost to Stefan Edberg
1991 lost to Michael Stich
1995 lost to Pete Sampras
*CAREER WIMBLEDON TITLES - MEN*
*MOST ATP FINAL MATCH-UPS*
20...Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe
19...Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
16...Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras
16...BORIS BECKER vs. STEFAN EDBERG
*CONSECUTIVE FINAL MATCH-UPS AT SLAM - MEN*
3...BECKER vs. EDBERG, Wimbledon 1988-90
3...Federer vs. Nadal, Roland Garros 2006-08
3...Federer vs. Nadal, Wimbledon 2006-08
All for now.
PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES:
1987 Roland Garros (Graf/Navratilova), 1987 Roland Garros (Lendl/Wilander), 1987 Wimbledon (Navratilova-Graf/Cash-Lendl), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez Vicario-Graf/Chang-Edberg), 1990 Roland Garros (Seles-Graf/Gomez-Agassi), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova/Garrison), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 Roland Garros (Seles/Sanchez-Vicario), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles-Graf/Courier-Edberg), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna), 2003 & '05 U.S. Open (Henin-Clijsters/Clijsters-Pierce), 2006 U.S. Open (Day-by-Day & Sharapova-Henin), 2001-09 Australian Open (Dokic Down Under)