Women's tennis had grown used to having its future hammered into a seemingly endless present by the Navratilova volley and the Evert backhand. But last week the future finally took on a new shape at the Virginia Slims Championships in Madison Square Garden, where 18-year-old Steffi Graf completed a year of precocious dominance in Sunday's final with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-4 victory over 17-year-old Gabriela Sabatini. The teenagers showed glimpses of a brand of athletic tennis that will raise the level of the women's game. "The future we've been anxiously predicting and predicting is finally here," said Ted Tinling, the eminent tennis historian.
Most observers believed that the Slims would conclude with a showdown of eras between Graf and the 31-year-old Navratilova to settle who was really No. 1 for 1987. In fact, Graf had already clinched the No. 1 ranking on the computer, but Navratilova was going for the popular vote. She contended—with the stubborn growl of what Tinling called "a lioness in winter"—that the same computer formula that had placed her at the top of the heap the last five years was flawed when it came to measuring the importance of her wins over Graf in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Martina insisted that her victories in the game's two biggest tournaments, combined with a climactic win in New York, would be more meaningful than Graf's 10 tournament victories.
Navratilova's year was an inspiration. She lost her first six tournaments before righting herself at Wimbledon. Her victories there and at Flushing Meadow were her 16th and 17th in Grand Slam singles titles, but she finished 1987 with an un-Navratilovan 56-8 record and only four tournament wins. Still, she insisted, "I wouldn't trade my year for Steffi's. It depends on whether you go for quality or quantity."
Graf wasn't about to devalue herself just because she had dealt in quantity. "I don't know why Martina believes this," she said. "She is talking so much, and I'm not very into all the talk."
November 30, 1987
The often stoic Graf is into performance. Her record for '87 was 75-2, the losses coming to Navratilova at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She won 11 other tournaments, beating Navratilova the two other times they played. When Graf reached No. 1 on the computer on Aug. 17, it marked the first time since 1981, when Tracy Austin was No. 1 for four months, that neither Navratilova nor Evert had held the top spot. Evert, Navratilova, Austin and Graf are the only players who have been ranked No. 1 since 1975.
Graf combines Navratilova's athleticism and power with Evert's resolve. Her forehand is now widely considered the best in the history of women's tennis, and her first serve is second only in power and placement to Navratilova's. Graf's footwork and court coverage are the best in the game, and she is steadily overcoming her fear of the net.
In New York, Graf dismantled Zina Garrison, Helena Sukova and Sylvia Hanika. Against Sabatini she got off to a slow start but never broke mentally, weathering a run of near-perfect tennis from Gabriela in the second set. When Sabatini weakened and dropped her serve to lose the second set, Graf's imposing will took over.
The Slims marked the first time in the 1980s that neither Navratilova nor Evert reached the semis of a tournament in which both were entered. Evert fell to Hanika in straight sets in the first round, completing the first year in the last 14 in which she failed to win a major championship. Navratilova got past Catarina Linqvist, but when she took the court for her quarterfinal match against Sabatini she found herself pitted against an inspired prodigy, a pro-Gaby crowd and, most ominously, her own frayed nerves. A balky serve and Sabatini's powerful ground strokes kept Navratilova in the backcourt, where she made 32 unforced errors, 22 of them from the backhand side. Four nervous backhands cost her the final game, sealing a 6-4, 7-5 win for Sabatini. Now even Navratilova couldn't quibble with the computer.
"This tournament was a chance for me to prove I was Number 1, and I felt the pressure," said Martina afterward. "Steffi is Number 1. I know I'm the better player, but I didn't prove it this year. I've got to get my act together."
No one doubts that a competitor as fierce as Navratilova will do just that—even if her era of dominance is past.