John McEnroe departed from Wimbledon more than a week early, but despite his protestations, tennis isn't dead yet. Wet, yes. Soaked, sopped and agonizingly waterlogged; interrupted and delayed—all while missing its biggest drip. But not dead. "Nobody is doing anything special," said Mac before he lost. "The guys are just no good."
Notice that McEnroe's nasty review didn't mention the women, possibly for fear that Steffi Graf might wind up and explode that grenade forehand of hers in his vicinity. Graf, 19, won her first title at the All England Club—she is the first female German champion since Cilly Aussem in 1931—and she almost certainly will win others. After granting eight-time champion Martina Navratilova a set and a 2-0 advantage in the championship round, Graf thrashed her 6-2, 6-1 in about 21 (rain-delayed, of course) seconds. The victory gave Graf her third major title of the year. If she wins the U.S. Open, she will become the first player since Margaret Court in 1970 to win the Grand Slam.
As for the men, even the debilitating drizzle that all but drowned Wimbledon's closing days did not obscure the scintillating performance of another new star. In what may have been a historic Wimbledon—one that introduced a new generation of both sexes—Stefan Edberg, 22, finally fulfilled his promise. As enigmatic as he is photogenic, Edberg is that rare Swede who can serve, volley and hold a racket with one hand.
Nonetheless, the junior Grand Slam Edberg won at 17, his two Australian Open crowns (in 1985 and '87) and his 14 other tour victories weren't enough to quell suspicions about his heart or his traditionally lame forehand. Edberg's coach, Tony Pickard, has worked on both while all of tennis has waited. Last week Edberg showed he possessed the will. In the midst of being outshot and outfoxed by the bearded sorcerer Miloslav Mecir in the semifinals, he produced the fortnight's best match, after having been down two sets to love and 3-3, 0-40 in the third. It was a comeback no man with a supposed inspiration block had any business even thinking about, but Edberg prevailed 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. "The key to my Wimbledon," he said. "It made me really strong."
July 10, 1988
After that he contrived a way to take on Wimbledon's favorite bullyboy, Boris Becker, on his own terms; to block out the tension gathering over a 24-hour postponement of the final (Edberg had jumped out to a 3-0 lead on Sunday before the rains came, with the score 3-2 in the first set, and delayed the proceedings until Monday morning); and to shrug off a one-set deficit. He would use his reputation for fragility as motivation. "I've responded to what people said and proved something to myself, too," said Edberg after he served brilliantly and hardly missed a volley in his 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory over the heavily favored Becker.
Boom Boom had crushed the defending champion, Pat Cash, and the world's No. 1, Ivan Lendl, in succession. He also had defeated Edberg in two finals this year—including one on grass at Queens, the Wimbledon tune-up tournament—and in nine of 13 matches over-all. "I am mentally stronger." he said.
But he wasn't. As Edberg stood a good eight feet behind the baseline to receive Becker's huge deliveries; as the quality of Edberg's net play shone brighter and brighter in the wet, dank gloom; as Edberg took a 5-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker; Becker tried some delaying tactics and then raged against the fates. After Edberg flashed three service-return winners, one off his no-longer-vulnerable forehand, to get an early break in the third set, Becker angrily flung his racket.
"The tournament was too long," said Boom Boom afterward. "I was thinking I beat the champion. I beat Number 1. What the hell was I doing here? Stefan was more psyched up than me."
Edberg has the best second serve in the business, tossing the ball far to the left to achieve tremendous kick. Becker could not deal with it, or with Edberg's first delivery, for that matter. He scored all of 11 points against Edberg's serve in the third and fourth sets. Conversely, Edberg repeatedly drilled Becker's kickers, hitting down on the ball to set up openings for his classic backhand.
Post-tiebreaker, the match was not close. Postmatch, Edberg could return to his flat in London's borough of Kensington, where he has quietly resided for three years. He likes London, especially the weather. It's similar to Sweden's. And, he says, "I understand the language here."
A few days before the final, Edberg said, "If you compare me to Boris, he's what I call a big star. He wants to be a big star, and he acts like a big star. I'd rather not be known by anybody. Of course, if I win Wimbledon, I think that will change quite a lot." Quite.
As for the All England Club's alltime pal, McEnroe: After a hiatus of two summers he showed up in his latest reincarnation as some kind of mellow, paternal statesman—at least until a couple of questionable calls during a second-round loss to Wally Masur of Australia turned him into his lovable old Werewolf of London self. "I'm not that good a guy," he said later. The truth shall set us free.
Masur is precisely the type of journeyman (computer ranking: 64) whose very ordinariness offends McEnroe's exalted sense of perfection. What he seems not to understand is that nobody can be the McEnroe of '84, especially the McEnroe of '88. Tennis is all power and pace now; any of the true sluggers in the draw—Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Cash or Bobo Zivojinovic—surely would have overwhelmed Tatum's husband. Against Masur, McEnroe was plodding in his response to the fickle bounces one gets on the lawn. "On grass you look and move," said Arthur Ashe. "McEnroe looked, thought and then moved."
And there's the age factor. At 29, McEnroe was the 11th-oldest male in the 128-player field. Additional food for thought for the Beatles generation: Jimmy Connors, 35, was the oldest—by four years. Jimbo was eliminated in the fourth round by a tall West German who served five sets of rockets at him and whose name was not even Becker. Patrick Kuhnen, 22, is ranked No. 8—in West Germany. "I don't know anybody in tennis anymore," said Connors after the match. "They're all 15 years younger. They speak a different language. They listen to different music." What, no When I'm Sixty-Four?
Wimbledon's decision to seed McEnroe eighth, 11 places above his ATP ranking, seemed folly when each of the other top-10 seeds reached the fourth round. Among them was Mecir, who concocted another of his mystery shows, defeating Masur and Mats Wilander, who, like Graf, had won the first two legs of the Grand Slam, the Australian and French opens. "This has happened before," said Wilander of his 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 quarterfinal loss. (Mecir has a 7-4 career record against Wilander.) "My style is not suited to this surface. If we played three of the four majors on clay, maybe I'd have a chance for the Slam."
The charmless antics of Cash nearly made everyone forget McEnroe. Cash complained about his low seeding (he was No. 4) and about having to play his fourth-round match on Court 14, hard by the TV trailers and along the route to the Baskin-Robbins stand. He railed against photographers for "snapping my girlfriend" (Anne-Britt Kristiansen) and against the pressures of defending the title because it's "too tense. I'm not exactly having a party out there." When someone asked Cash who should be favored in his quarterfinal match with Becker, he replied, "I don't give a——."
And you thought Paul Hogan was an ungrateful Aussie for Dundee-dumping his wife? Cash kept tarnishing his Wimbledon crown even as Becker was put ting him out of his misery by a score of 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. When the momentum of a winning volley carried Cash sprawling across the net, Becker responded by swan-diving over onto Cash's side. Boom Boom Louganis. It was a funny, tension-easing moment, but Cash reacted with epithets and a complaint to the umpire.
"Boris is cocky," Cash said later as he wore an outrageous, flaming red wig to mimic Becker. "He likes to talk about me and my family like I was his best buddy. I don't know why. He just rubbishes me." Indeed, the longer Becker remains with his agent/manager/aide-de-camp, Ion Tiriac, the more sophistication, psychology and gamesmanship seem to show up in his dossier.
Becker has said Cash's 1987 Wimbledon victory came on "a lifetime day." He also has said Edberg "is not a big-match player. He will lose not because he isn't good enough but because he thinks he isn't good enough." The Edberg brain trust was furious when, during the final at Queens, with Becker leading 4-3, 30-all in the final set, Stefan had to replay his second serve after Boris indicated that he hadn't been ready to receive it. Edberg double-faulted the point away and the next one as well, and Becker won the set 6-3.
Whether such behavior is youthful spontaneity or Tiriacian training came into question again in Becker's two-day, rain-interrupted 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 win over Lendl in the semis at Wimbledon. Lendl, who lost the 1986 and '87 Wimbledon finals to Becker and Cash, respectively, had desperately clung to a chance for a third straight appearance in the championship match. He had fallen apart in the first two sets, while Becker overpowered him and still found time to call for some scissors to clip his bangs. HAIRY FOR BORIS screamed one tabloid. Lendl saved three match points in the fourth set and won an enthralling tiebreaker 10-8 as darkness fell on Friday night. The next day he struggled through one thigh injury, two rain delays, innumerable volley errors and five more Becker match points.
And what was Becker doing at the end? Chatting up a lineswoman. "It is good luck for me," Becker said. "I had tried everything. I asked her what shot to hit. She didn't know either. Everybody tries something. I think it [gamesmanship] is all right."
Lendl was not pleased, and he cracked an ace. Nevertheless, he succumbed on Becker's ninth match point, which Boom Boom won with one of his macho forehands off a Lendl half-volley sitter. Becker's behavior? "I'll leave that to Cash," said Lendl after the match. "I'm not getting involved."
As it happened, Edberg dealt with Becker, in both mind and body, stopping him from taking over the men's championship as his distaff Deutschlander-in-arms did the ladies' championship. Surely no woman since Helen Wills Moody has dominated a Wimbledon as thoroughly as Graf did this one. Not even Navratilova, about whom all the questions had been asked. Could she win her seventh straight (and ninth overall) Wimbledon crown to break the record she shared with Moody for most singles titles? Could she whip Graf and stop the Slam? Could she get by the former Chris Evert Lloyd, the current Chris Evert and the future Chris Evert Mill and win their 78th match? Could she get by Ros Fairbank?
Other than Navratilova, nobody stayed in the ring with Graf for more than an hour or got more than three games in a set from her. "I was intimidated," said a mononucleosis-afflicted Pam Shriver after winning three games off Graf in their 59-minute semi. This performance was one game and eight minutes better than last year's effort against Graf in the same round. "I stalled more," said Shriver.
Would that Navratilova could have delayed Graf's onslaught for another year, if only to preserve joy among the Martina coterie (not entourage, she insists), which this season includes Mom and Dad, companion Judy Nelson, Nelson's mother and other assorted relatives, new coach Tim Gullikson, his wife and kids, a sports psychologist, a stats man, a cook, a chiropractor and a bandana designer, but not Squeaky Fromme. This spectacular nuclear unit realized that title No. 9 would be the toughest yet after Martina stumbled to a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory in the quarters over the rejuvenated Fairbank, a veteran South African who is trying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, playing out of San Diego's Rancho Green Cardo Bernardo. Fairbank came within one point of leading 5-2 in both of the last two sets before she remembered that this was her 35th Grand Slam event and that—gaaaaag—she had never gotten this far.
Evert, of course, had. But none of her matches with Navratilova—their semifinal was another struggle, another 7-5 Martina victory in the third set—ever ended on such a preposterous note. Evert played a horrid first set, which she lost 6-1. After a 70-minute rain delay, Evert worked her way back into the match and won the second set 6-4. She saved a match point in the 10th game of the third set and two more in the 12th.
On Navratilova's fourth match point, Evert raked a crosscourt forehand that nicked the tape, flew past Martina and caught the sideline. Or so Evert thought—she threw her hands up in the air in relief. But as Navratilova turned and looked at the linesman, he raised his arm: out. Umpire Richard Lumb—rhymes with numb—seemed puzzled and didn't call the match over, whereupon Navratilova stalked to the chair and demanded the result. When Lumb finally announced, "The ball was called out," she strode to the net with her hand out. Only then did Evert, looking on in disbelief, approach her rival for a cursory handshake—more like brushed fingers, actually. She didn't shake Lumb's hand.
It was suggested to Navratilova that the crowd's jeers had not given her her due. "Surely you jest," she said. "It was like I was a Martian out there."
Insiders said Evert was upset at the manner in which, Evert thought, Navratilova maneuvered the situation—she had protested a previous close call against her, working Lumb as a basketball coach might a referee. For her part, Navratilova was perturbed that Evert picked Graf to win the final. Stay tuned because Chris-Martina may be the only drama for the women if Graf maintains the level of play she demonstrated through the fortnight.
Graf's father, Peter, and her coach, Pavel Slozil, have worked the last couple of months to fine-tune Steffi's serve and forehand. More important, for four months before Wimbledon. Graf concentrated on her backhand service return, which was a glaring weakness in her final-round loss to Navratilova at last year's Wimbledon. A lefthanded club player from Koblenz named Markus Schur impersonated Martina, slicing southpaw deliveries wide to Graf's backhand for hours on end.
"I am ready for the slice serve," Graf announced before the final. On Saturday, after losing a 5-3 lead in the first set and dropping six straight games to fall behind 7-5, 2-0, Graf slapped a ball into the backstop in fury. Then she pounced.
Navratilova had wisely stayed away from Graf's forehand, but now she grew braver. Suddenly Martina started serving into the lioness's den. Two crushing forehand returns by Graf gave her a service break and turned the match upside down. Navratilova would not hold serve again in seven attempts.
With Graf serving at 1-2, 30-15 in the second set, she raced back to retrieve a lob and raced up to intercept a drop shot. A Graf ace on a second serve ended a love game and the second set. The winners continued in flurries off both flanks from the backcourt, and time and again Graf even took the net from Navratilova. A rain delay at 3-1 in the third only postponed the inevitable. In truth, it was a reign stoppage.
"I got blown out," said Navratilova. "Steffi's speed—her incredible spring—is her biggest weapon. She's so quick off the mark. If she doesn't get to the ball, she can't nail that big forehand."
But she does and she can. Graf was asked if she was contemplating Tysonesque thoughts, now that nobody was left to punch out. "I'm not retiring, if that's what you mean," she said.
No, the U.S. Open and the Grand Slam are still to be won. And likely a dozen more major titles after that. And miles to go before she—and the devastating forehand—sleeps.
"Graf slapped a ball into the backstop in fury, then pounced."