Steffi Graf peered across the net early in her final-round match of the Virginia Slims of Florida on Sunday and suddenly recognized the face peering back at her. Normally this would not be a big deal, but Graf rarely sees faces on the other side of the net; she sees chalk outlines of bodies on the ground. Yet this was definitely a face to be reckoned with, and the shock of recognition may have caused her, for once, to be less than perfect.
The face belonged to Chris Evert, and soon enough so did the first set of their match at the Polo Club of Boca Raton. Evert, who has won 18 Grand Slam tournaments in her career, summoned up one more lapidary set before Graf went on to win 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. By taking a set from Graf, the first she has surrendered in 22 matches this year. Evert, 34, may have elevated herself to the stature of a sort of Mother Courage figure in the locker room.
Graf spent most of the first set pinned to the baseline by Evert's deep ground strokes, and she didn't generate any power with her predatory forehand. "I was trying to run her around with the slice backhand to tire her out," said Graf, "but it was not the right thing to do." Graf righted herself in the second set, but Evert had a chance to pull even at 4-4 in the third when she went up 40-15 in the eighth game. Then Evert twice fed Graf's forehand, and Steffi hammered them for winners. Evert had creased the lines all day, but by now her shots had begun to lose their punch.
"I knew I had to hit out because any soft ball she just kills," said Evert. "In the third set the angles on her shots got sharper and sharper. It's tough to know what to do against her, but for this one match I almost played to her standards. She's head and shoulders above everybody else."
"It was scary out there," said Helen Kelesi, the 16th-ranked player in the world, after Graf administered a 6-1, 6-1 thrashing in the quarterfinals. "I was just trying to hit the ball back, and I couldn't even do that."
Graf was everywhere, achieving near-omnipotence on the court. "With me the mental part of the game was always stronger than the physical," said Evert. "Martina was always known for the physical aspects of her game. Steffi has both."
Though Graf insists that "you Americans have too many statistics," here are a few numbers worth pondering. Of the 42 sets she played this year before facing Evert, she won 14 at 6-1 and a dozen at 6-0. In those 21 matches Graf lost an average of only 3.23 games, which suggests the frightening possibility that she is getting better. '"She doesn't like to lose a single point," says Terry Phelps. "She's always like that, so intense. For two years she's been like that. You'd think after a while she'd get bored."
Is Graf simply in that groove that tennis players call "the zone," in which every ball looks as big as a cantaloupe? "Usually a player will be zoned for a match, or sometimes for a tournament," says Susan Sloane, who lost 6-0, 6-1 to Graf in the second round. "But this has been going on for a long time" Graf's victory over Evert gave her 186 wins in her last 192 matches.
The idea began to get around even before last week that it no longer mattered whom Graf was playing, that she just pulled the trigger on her forehand and waited for authorities to notify the next of kin. She had reduced the rest of the women's tour to an army of tall, thin, short, fat faceless ciphers who offered her an opportunity to work out whatever small refinements remained to be made in her game. When Phelps double-faulted against her at a tournament in San Antonio earlier this month, Phelps had an urge to apologize to Graf. "I felt like she'd be mad at me because I wasn't giving her enough practice or something." says Phelps.
Graf's draw last week was typical of the level of resistance she now faces. Although Martina Navratilova was the only player among the world's first five who was missing, the field was so far behind Graf that the only topic of interest at her press conference on Friday concerned the degree of her dominance. Someone asked how she felt about being "not human, a tennis machine," and some other wretch asked if, at age 19, she was considering retirement.
She is not. Which means continuing frustration for a player like Sloane, who was ranked 106th on the computer when she lost to Graf at the French Open last year and 26th when she fell to her last week. That's a 300% improvement, yet Sloane still lost ground to the only player who matters. "It's no fun playing Steffi." says Sloane. "She has no weaknesses, none. Right now I'm playing the best I've ever played, and she beats me oh and one. It's scary."
Although Graf has developed an effective backhand and a powerful serve, her paralyzing forehand—a shot that lifts her a foot into the air every time she strikes it—is still what separates her from the field. When Evert was the world's dominant player, she begat an army of two-fisted baseliners, and Navratilova produced a number of serve-and-volleyers. But Graf has no imitators. "There's nobody else in the world who can do what she does," says Zina Garrison. "She's just total power. Her forehand puts fear in everybody."
Graf began 1988 at the Australian Open, where she crushed Gabriela Sabatini—the game's best hope for providing Graf a rival—6-3, 6-0 in the semis and overcame Helena Sukova 6-4, 6-4 in the finals. Next, at the Virginia Slims of Washington, Graf mowed down Stacey Martin in 39 minutes, gave up only 16 points to Carling Bassett Seguso in a 6-0, 6-0 victory and won the first 20 points of the championship match against Garrison. At that juncture, 5-0 against Garrison, the seventh-ranked player in the world, Graf was within four points of winning what is known as a Golden Set. "I couldn't believe it," says Graf. "After the third game, I asked myself. Should I go for a shot? Or should I play it safe and try to get to 6-love without losing a point? It was funny."
Distractions like that may be Graf's only remaining obstacle. In this case Graf lost concentration (Garbo speaks!) and wound up winning the match 6-1, 7-5. "You have to keep your mind in that specific moment," she says. The fact is, Graf believes that her ability to focus solely on tennis is her principal advantage over other players. "I don't know how much concentration they put into it, how much will," she says.
Not everyone agrees that her victories are triumphs of the will. "One or two balls a point—how hard do you have to concentrate when you have weapons like that?" says Garrison.
Says Bassett Seguso, "I would hit a good shot on the run, and she would hit a winner off it. I think the only type of player who has a chance against her is an unbelievable serve-and-volleyer, double what Martina is now. Some of the things she does don't seem human."
The more often she is described as a machine, the more painfully obvious it becomes how human Graf is. She looks much less stern when her ponytail and her game face come down, and she is just becoming aware of what she is sacrificing for tennis. Last week she spoke animatedly about having seen The Phantom of the Opera—calling it her favorite Broadway play—and then admitted that she had left at the intermission because she had a match the next morning. When her younger brother Michael stopped in Boca Raton last week on his way to a vacation in Hawaii, she said, forcing a wry smile, "It's not fair. He's going to Hawaii, and I have to stay here and practice. I've never even been to Hawaii. But I keep telling myself my fun times will come later."
They can't come soon enough for the rest of the women on the circuit. "The players all wish she'd fall in love, get married and get pregnant," says Evert. Graf, however, isn't going anywhere. "I feel more relaxed than I did last year," she says, referring to the pressure of winning the Grand Slam and an Olympic gold medal in 1988. "Everywhere I went people were asking me about the Grand Slam. I could never get away from it." Nonetheless, she finished the year with a 72-3 match record.
Winning back-to-back Slams would be nice; no one has ever done that. And there was a lot of talk last week about her going through an entire year undefeated, something else no one in the modern era has done. Despite Graf's loss of a set on Sunday, no one believes she is slipping. Said Evert, "To get a set off Steffi when she's playing this great is something."
Graf seems to despair at the notion that people now expect her to be perfect. "You'd have to be so much higher than all the others," she says. "One year of concentration." Her head droops as if she is feeling the weight of this idea.
"With the competition now, you always can lose," she says, suddenly looking very much 19. "Don't do this to me, please. To be perfect for a year, this is not possible."