The two best women tennis players in the world moved toward the court to play the finals of the Pat Summerall U.S. Open. Steffi Graf, in her new hairdo, a ponytail, and Martina Navratilova, in her new punky spike-top, both carried large bouquets. A man, clean-shaven and dressed all in white, save for his dark glasses, popped out of the gloaming and kissed Martina. He was Don Johnson of Miami Vice.
It was almost six o'clock on Saturday, the penultimate day of the tournament, and Johnson was lucky to find the lady to buss, for with the women's final playing second fiddle to the two men's semis, it was tough to figure when the women would be called on to begin their most important match at the Tim Ryan U.S. Open. At the three real Grand Slam championships, the French and Australian Opens and Wimbledon, scheduling is orderly, and the integrity of the game is maintained. But the Mary Carillo U.S. Open is run as a TV show, and America's championship has been called bush league—or some comparable foreign idiom—by all sorts of observers from around the world. Luckily, the chattel at the Tony Trabert U.S. Open can still rise above their environment, and by the time the distaff finalists left the court an hour and a half later, Navratilova had beaten Graf for the third year running at Flushing Meadow, and once again put on the mantle of best in the world.
Three days earlier Chris Evert had been eliminated in the quarterfinals, and her departure marked the end of some remarkable—even DiMaggioan—streaks. Meanwhile, Navratilova was stretching some records of her own. By defeating Graf she earned her fourth U.S. title in the last five years and her 17th Grand Slam singles crown. She has reached the finals of the last 11 major championships (and 17 of the last 18), which are played on three continents, on three surfaces, in winter, spring and summer. Rarely does a player—man or woman—even compete in 11 straight Grand Slam events; to play the final match in 11 in a row is Olympian.
Graf has been in three consecutive Grand Slam finals herself. Some old-timers even recollect when major finals were the Martina and Chris Show. But now it's Martina and Steffi at the anchor desk, with Hana on weather, Pam on sports, and Lori out in the field. Lori?
September 20, 1987
Anybody who had seen Evert lose on clay last summer in the Federation Cup to Sandra Cecchini of Italy knew that she had reached an age when she was a bomb waiting to fizzle. In New York it happened against the No. 11 seed, Lori McNeil of Houston. The legs don't go first. The eyes don't go first. What goes first is that the days aren't all the same anymore. Some days, in fact, become bad days. Such a day for Evert came on Sept. 9 against McNeil: 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. McNeil approached on everything. Said Evert afterward, "Nobody has ever come in on my serve like that."
For the first time in 16 years Evert didn't make the semifinals of her national championship. It was only the second time in her career of 49 Grand Slam tournaments that she failed to reach the final four, and the defeat ended a 13-year streak in which she had won at least one Grand Slam crown. "Chris is different," McNeil said simply enough. "She has so much history behind her."
Evert took what likely amounts to the end of her career as a major force in tennis quite well. She realized how many bad days she had dodged. "As hard as I tried, I couldn't get my body to do the things I wanted it to," she said.
Some players encounter that recalcitrance in their dispositions. Indeed, a wayward temperament is what did in Hana Mandlikova, the fourth seed, the reigning Australian champion, the winner at Flushing Meadow two Septembers ago and the loose cannon (some would say screw) in any field. Mandlikova went slightly berserk early in the third set of a fourth-round match against Claudia Kohde-Kilsch. Infuriated at the officiating, Mandlikova first berated two linesmen. Summoned by walkie-talkie, Georgina Clark, the supervisor of the women's competition at the Open, arrived at the scene. Clark assessed the situation and, with British understatement, decided that "the match was fragile." Mandlikova then started wielding her racket against the patio furniture in her best Lizzie Borden style. Clark penalized Mandlikova a whole game. It was only the third time in the annals of crime that such a punishment had been meted out to a female player.
After the choleric Mandlikova had donated the deciding set by a score of 6-1 to Kohde-Kilsch's favorite charity, she retreated to a public lavatory to escape the jackals of the press. The intrepid journalists thereupon dispatched one of the gentler sex, Cindy Shmerler of World Tennis magazine, to enter the loo, where she enjoyed an unforgettable conversation with the stallbound loser. Finally, Mandlikova was rescued from the Fourth Estate by her coach, Betty Stove.
The departures of Evert and Mandlikova appeared to grease the paths of the two top seeds. Indeed, Navratilova, No. 2, moved effortlessly to the final, routing Helena Sukova (whom she had whipped last year in the finals) 6-3, 6-2 in the semis. Graf, however, was lucky to escape with her life against McNeil.
Mop-topped and 23, McNeil is one of the few black players to make a mark on the tennis tour. Nonetheless, she has often gone unnoticed because her buddy since childhood, Zina Garrison, the seventh seed in the Open, has always been the 1 to McNeil's 1A in the Houston black entry. To win the right to dash Evert upon the rocks McNeil had to beat Garrison in the third-set tiebreaker of a wonderful match that was shunted off to a back court. These black stars lack the endorsements common to other players of comparable rank. In her unadorned togs, which lacked the usual billboard advertising for airlines, breath mints or car rentals, McNeil appeared to be some abbess of tennis.
Both Garrison and McNeil have been brought along by John Wilkerson, a public-parks coach who, felicitously, had the 11-year-old Lori dumped in his lap by her mother, Dorothy, who had been taking lessons from him. McNeil's athletic genes may come from the other side of her family, however; her father, Charlie, was a defensive back with the San Diego Chargers. She is more open than Garrison and altogether "such a nice person," says Wilkerson, "that Lori can be taken advantage of."
The Houston ensemble is popular on tour and always at home among themselves. There is a lot of teasing. For example, in Europe this summer Wilkerson and Garrison wouldn't let McNeil order Peking duck because, they kidded her, she often glances up from her volleys as if she's looking to shoot some ducks out of the sky—and that's enough ducks for her without having another one on her plate.
At Flushing Meadow, McNeil surprised No. 1 seed Graf—and everybody else—by winning the first set 6-4, though, to be fair, Graf had come down with fever and flu. Still, McNeil played her perfectly. Pam Shriver, another serve-and-volley player, had lost to Graf in straight sets in the quarters, but Shriver was sure she had failed only in her execution, not in her rush-the-net strategy. "The puzzle is solved," she said and passed the tips on to the other American.
This only encouraged McNeil to play Graf much as she had Evert. She came in on almost every opportunity. The idea was to put the pressure on Graf, make her thread the passing needle time and time again, especially because she rarely lobs. Take the pace off the ball and don't serve from the same spot every time; give Graf "different looks." Feed her enough wide forehands to force her out of her favorite spot, the backhand corner, where she can open up and bust her forehand.
As Navratilova watched from the television booth, McNeil carried out the plan. She came in 93 times against Graf, sharply cutting volley thrusts. Though Graf evened the match by winning the second set 6-2, McNeil didn't falter, and with Graf serving at 3-all in the third, McNeil was on top of the net at break point. From behind the baseline all Graf could manage was a wobbly forehand. With just a love tap back into the nearly empty court, McNeil would be serving at 4-3. Instead, at the last instant, McNeil glanced up and pushed the ball deep down into the net. The moment was gone. Graf got the last break: 6-4.
Her father, Peter Graf, waved to her, and Steffi ran to him and kissed him smack on the lips. He hugged her and whispered joyously into her ear. He seemed so proud that she had won in spite of being so weak. Then Steffi hurried off to take her medicine.
McNeil moved along under the grandstand until Wilkerson suddenly appeared before her. He embraced her, and she looked into his face. He didn't console her. Instead, he broke a little smile, and all he said was, "Well, we killed all but the one duck." McNeil smiled back at her coach, sharing their little secret.
For the finals the next day Graf still had some fever. She first faced Navratilova, two years ago. Graf was a 16-year-old with three inches to grow. They played in the semis at Flushing Meadow, and beforehand Peter had said, "There are no possibilities Steffi can win." But when Martina trounced her 2 and 3, much as he had predicted, he was so upset he steered his daughter away, screaming at a photographer before Navratilova could properly console her. Last year, in the semis again, Graf held three match points before falling to Martina.
This year Graf beat Navratilova twice—once in the French Open final—before losing a tough match at Wimbledon, on her opponent's best surface. But Navratilova was so sure that she was back in form and that she knew how to deal with the new threat, she went to sleep on Friday night fearful only of overconfidence. She dropped her first service game, but won the opening set in a tiebreaker. She then pounded Graf 6-1 in the second set. First Graf's backhand went, and then even her vaunted forehand was in tatters.
Navratilova has won just two of seven tournaments this year, but they were Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. So Martina is still champeen. Graf has a better record for 1987. Nobody but Navratilova has beaten her. But so what? You don't win the crown on a split decision. You've got to knock the champion out.
Probably even more important to Navratilova: She won the crowd. The place was emptying out, of course, when the women's finals started. The stands were only half filled, and only 21 people were in the USTA president's box, which seats 100 or so. In London, Paris or Melbourne, where women's finals are treated with honor, the stadium would have been packed. But never mind. From Don Johnson on down, the crowd was all for Navratilova. Evert has her bad days now, and Graf has her best days ahead. But it's Martina who rules today.