IT MAKES NO SENSE. It's a complete aberration that a little corner of a country with no real tennis past should realize such a glorious gift. On Sunday at Wimbledon—Vimbledon!—Steffi Graf, 20, of West Germany ended her 6-2, 6-7, 6-1 defeat of Martina Navratilova in the rain-delayed women's finals with an ace. Several hours later her countryman Boris Becker, 21, stood on the same patch of earth and dispatched the defending men's champion, Stefan Edberg, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4 with a mere service winner.
You would have to riffle through Wagnerian librettos to find an instance in which youth, strength and power, athleticism and Teutonism conspired with nature's own green grass so gloriously as they did at the All England (some misnomer that is) Lawn Tennis Club that day. You would have to go back to 1934. when England's Fred Perry and Dorothy Round won the titles, to find the last time a European nation furnished both the gentlemen's and ladies' champions in the same year. What's more, before Becker and Graf charged to their first All England titles, in 1985 and 1988, respectively. Germany had produced only one Wimbledon champion of either sex—Cilly Aussem in 1931.
Consider that Becker and Graf—he from Leiman, she from Bruhl—grew up not 10 minutes' drive from each other in the southwestern corner of the Federal Republic. They knew each other as kids, and they ran across each other at local tournaments. "I used to be the worst in the boys, and she was best in the girls." says Becker. "So when I was maybe nine and she was seven. I had to hit with her."
But there are no more like them back in Baden, the region they come from. "It may not happen here again, you know," Becker said after the Deutsches Doppel. "It depends more on me than her."
July 16, 1989
Truth be told, Becker had the easier time on Sunday. Edberg, a finalist at the French Open last month, had volleyed superbly to reach the final, but against Becker he muffed three chances at net in his first service game, and Becker ran off seven consecutive games. Clearly this wasn't to be Edberg's day. In the next set he had triple set point while serving at 6-5 but squandered five straight points, most of them on more sloppy volleys, and went on to lose the tiebreaker. "At that moment, 5-6, love-40 on grass, there's normally no way you can win the set." said Becker. "But if you think like that, you also don't win."
After Edberg double-faulted on break point at 4-4, in the third set, Becker served out the match. He flung his racket into the Centre Court crowd with a forehand sweep. A young lady from Birmingham grabbed it just about when the notorious Wimbledon skies opened up. "Ten minutes too late," said Edberg later.
The day before, Becker had needed a 76-minute rain delay in his semifinal with top-seeded Ivan Lendl to compose his usual flighty self. Down 0-3 in the third set after having split the first two, Becker headed for the locker room, "shattered," in the view of Lendl, who was playing magnificently in his continued quest to win the lone Grand Slam title that has eluded him. Only after two dubious line calls went against Lendl in the fourth set and Becker strung together 11 straight points in the fifth—when Lendl was again flogged by questionable officiating—did Becker secure the 7-5, 6-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory. "The rain was good for me," he said. "I could think again."
To win, Becker knows that he has to keep his head. Two years ago he had Mats Wilander on the ropes at the French Open when a ball bounded toward Jean-Paul Belmondo, who was seated in the front row. Becker had never met the French actor, and upon retrieving the ball, took the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He disintegrated thereafter.
"Emotionally you can compare him to [Ilie] Nastase," says Ion Tiriac, Becker's manager and mentor. "Like all artists, he has to bring something extra to his work. Germanic people are supposed to be stable and square, but you would think Boris was born in Naples. He will always live on his emotions."
As it was, Becker had several demifeuds with All England officialdom. After checking the schedule for his first-round match and finding himself down for neither Centre Court nor Court No. 1, he assumed he wasn't playing. In fact, he had been exiled to Court No. 2, the dread favorites' graveyard. That same day a security guard delayed Becker's entry to the grounds because Becker had forgotten to bring his player's pass with him. Soon enough Becker was criticizing the two-tiered locker-room facilities for the players, one for seeds, the other for lesser-ranked competitors. And during his second-round win over Richard Matuszewski, he donned a gaudy multicolored shirt in violation of the tournament's rule that players dress predominantly in white.
All this was a light divertissement from Becker's heavy tennis. At one point his quarterfinal opponent, an overmatched Paul Chamberlin of the U.S., pleaded with Becker to tell him where the next serve was going. Becker obliged, and Chamberlin whacked one of his few winning returns. "I'd be looking straight ahead and the ball would already be past me," said a humbled Chamberlin. "Next time I'll wear a cup and chest protector."
Becker gained attention for a different kind of prowess on Friday, after his main squeeze, Karen Shultz, 25, returned to Hamburg for exams. Rupert Murdoch's tabloid The Sun, carried reportage of several alleged Becker trysts with a riveting auxiliary squeeze, identified as model Claudia Blondeau. Tiriac was disgusted that such a story made print, but somehow understood.
"What are they going to write about a match that goes 6-1, 6-2, 6-0?" Tiriac said, referring to Becker's efficient rout of Chamberlin. "There is nothing special about that. In research conducted in England, people say the most degrading job is garbage collector. Journalist comes second. If you cannot live with them, they are going to kill you. If they kill you, you are not strong enough."
The man The Sun calls Bonking Boris evidently was strong enough. Karen returned to cheer him on through the semis and final, while Claudia wasn't in evidence. What was clear was that Becker, once a pure power player, on and off the court, has added some diversity to his repertoire.
"He has filled in the gaps not just in his forehand volley and backhand cross, but in his personality." said Tiriac "At 17 everyone expected him to be god. To be Wayne Gretzky. Tennis needed very badly a Boris Becker at that stage. Even now it does. But he is a man on his own now who makes decisions and lives with the decisions he makes."
With the same four finalists as last year, and with the same incorrigible American teenager. Andre Agassi, truant once again, at first blush this Wimbledon seemed derivative. It wasn't. A fresh complement of youngsters, led by the 17-year-old French Open champions. Michael Chang of the U.S. and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain, graced the swards of the All England Club. Meanwhile. Jimmy Connors, 36, and Chris Evert, 34, in all likelihood played Wimbledon for the last time. The relatively middle-aged West Germans to whom this year's titles went—"young fogeys," as the Brits call them—somehow bound together the entering and exiting generations.
Connors went out to America's Dan Goldie in the second round on the Court No. 1 side stage, and Evert nearly met the same fate in the same place. In her 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 quarterfinal victory over Italy's Laura Golarsa (a reckless, bounding 21-year-old whose hobby is collecting pictures of John McEnroe). Evert found herself down 2-5. in the final set. After pulling out that game, she ripped off a running backhand pass down the line at 30-all in the next one. She then made eye contact with her father. Jimmy. "It was the most important point I had played in a long time," said Evert. "I knew then that I could win."
The escape left Evert and her husband. Andy Mill, in a dewy postmatch embrace, and marked the 17th time in 18 attempts she had reached the semifinals at Wimbledon. Barring a transplant of "a couple of different parts," she hinted strongly that this had been her last appearance at the fortnight. After being thrashed by Graf 6-2, 6-1, she was grateful that she could wave her goodbyes from Centre Court. "They both conquered their public." said tennis couturier Ted Tinting of Evert and Connors. "[When they both won] in '74 neither was popular. She was the Ice Maiden, and everybody disliked Jimmy because he was under the spell of Nastase. I think they were linked by some sort of fatalistic affinity with that two-handed shot."
As Connors and Evert move out, a new generation moves in, also shaking two fists at the world. Monica Seles, the 15-year-old Yugoslav, reached the semis in Paris before falling in three sets to Graf. In her Wimbledon debut, Seles, who has moved to the U.S. and become a Nick Bollettieri protègèe, got only one game off the champion, but she did well to reach the round of 16.
The ebullient Sanchez-Vicario—she won the French simply as Sanchez but has since added her mother's family name because, as Arantxa says. "My mother wants to get her name in the papers too"—wears a ball holder around her midriff, and she soon had all of London attached to her too. Before losing 7-5, 6-1 to Graf in the quarters, she squeezed off the most cold-blooded drop shot imaginable while down match point to Italy's Raffaella Reggi, whom she went on to beat 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. Sanchez-Vicario and her precocious contemporaries discovered that despite their baseline-hugging, clay-friendly games, grass is—as Arantxa put it—not "only for the cows."
Chang doesn't yet have the skills for grass, but he played as gamely as the distaff greenhorns did, reaching the round of 16 before Tim Mayotte's booming game finally undid him, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. Mayotte nonetheless described Chang as "dumbfounding.... I could barely play when I was 17."
Agassi, by contras, wasn't dumbfounding. He was just dumb. For the second straight summer, he ducked the sport's premier event. The WHERE'S ANDRE? T-shirts sold briskly outside the grounds, but that didn't mean he was much on anyone's mind, other than as an instructive contrast to Chang, who took his lumps and vowed to come back next year, improved.
The hoity-toity All England Club members hope that none of these teens takes McEnroe as a role model. Before Edberg eliminated him 7-5, 7-6, 7-6 in the semis, Mac was a walking media event, as he continued his comeback under trying circumstances. Some guy, who identified himself only as "Tony from Chicago," sprayed air freshener from an aerosol can in McEnroe's face for no apparent reason, as Mac left an outside court after a doubles match. MANIAC ATTACKS MCENROE, shrieked one tabloid, TERROR FOR STAR, cried another. Scotland Yard took notice of no fewer than four death threats against him. DEATH-SCARE MIGHTYMOUTH UNDER GUARD.
McEnroe wasn't above making some threats of his own. Before the tournament he vowed to drop his pants on Centre Court if Chang made the finals. After Chang lost, The Sun ran a doctored, front-page photo of Mac in full moon beneath the headline, BRAT'S DROP SHOT! THE SIGHT CHANG WON'T BE SEEING. Golarsa presumably added the picture to her collection.
On court, McEnroe did most of his misbehaving in a 6-3, 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 fourth-round elimination of Australia's John Fitzgerald. Mac griped that the courtside refrigerator in which the balls were stored was humming too loudly. And he dallied so blatantly when Fitzgerald was ready to serve that he was assessed a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct. Finally, he lit into an innocent ball boy during a changeover for handing him a drink without ice.
Fitzgerald's postmatch philippic—"A leopard doesn't change its spots; he tries to let everyone believe he's changed his ways, but that's ridiculous"—got a sympathetic hearing. For all of McEnroe's protestations that fatherhood and the years have mellowed him, he still backslides much too easily. Perhaps Mac feels that to play as he once did, he must behave as he once did too. Certainly each episode of recidivism had a salutary effect on his shot-making. Wrote Matthew Engle in The Guardian, "Never has there been a better illustration of Dr. Spock's theory that it is much better to let them cry than bottle it all up."
Mac, who dismissed Fitzgerald's comments as "a sour-grapes situation," controlled himself in a 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Wilander and in the loss to Edberg. At least he outbehaved Mayotte, the erstwhile Gentleman Tim, who during the fortnight found time to curse an umpire, destroy a racket, incur fines totaling $850 and send several caustic zingers toward linesmen. Sample: "You've seen the ball? Round thing. Yellow."
Like McEnroe, Navratilova skipped the clay-court circuit to prepare for Wimbledon. She left the Team Navratilova taxi squad at home to minimize distractions and arrived in London with only companion Judy Nelson, coach Craig Kardon and motivator Billie Jean King in tow. Wimbledon titles, said the woman who has won eight of them, are "like a drug."
Even on grass, her best surface, and even driven, Navratilova is no match for Graf at her best. Graf got her two breaks in the first set of the final with blistering backhand return-of-serve winners. (In her seven matches during the fortnight she broke serve 37 times in 59 attempts.) After Navratilova played a near-perfect tiebreaker, which she won 7-1, to take the second set, Graf broke serve in the fourth game of the third with a backhand crosscourt that Navratilova volleyed meekly into the net. After that, said Graf later, "I had to tell myself to concentrate, and not start laughing. I loosened up so much."
Here was strength through joy: Graf, free the rest of the way, hitting out, driving her first serves as deep as she dared—in short, playing an attacking, serve-and-volley game without coming to the net. "I don't know how much more she can improve," said Navratilova afterward. "Her forehand is so huge, she puts the ball away from the baseline."
Graf, victor at the Australian Open in January but an upset victim of Sanchez-Vicario in the final of the French, can't win another Grand Slam this year, but don't bet against a bases-clearing triple. Evert, taking stock of the best she has ever seen, described Graf as ""physically Martina, mentally Billie Jean." She also said. "With Steffi, I think the best is yet to come."
Graf wouldn't elaborate on her post-match comment that this title was "for myself, not for anybody else." However, she may have been referring to her loving but doting father, Peter. Much was made of how Herr Graf's absence during the last two sets of the French final—he was back in Bruhl with bronchitis—contributed to his daughter's undoing in Paris. At Wimbledon he was suffering from gastritis, and he flew back to West Germany several times for treatment. While concerned about his poor health, Steffi grew weary of incessant questions about its effect on her play. "My father wasn't in Paris, so I lost," she said after beating Seles. "He is here today, so I win 6-0. 6-1." She was being facetious, but no one caught her drift, so she quickly added. "I'm joking now."
O.K., humor has never been a German strong suit. Seriousness nobody does better. "There were times last year I didn't know how much I was winning and how tough it was," Graf said on Sunday. ""When you lose a couple of times, it makes you realize how hard winning is."
Becker said much the same thing. "The early ones were like fairy tales," he said of his first two Wimbledon titles. ""They weren't true, really."
How about that: Champions who actually appreciate their lofty station, rather than view it as a birthright. Question is, do their compatriots know how much the Doppel means? Becker thinks not—not yet, anyway. "It's so brand new and so impossible to think of." he said. "Only when we are grandfather and grandmother will people realize what we have achieved."
Perhaps by then our own Mr. Agassi will have deigned to show up at Centre Court.
"It may not ever happen here again, you know. It depends more on me than on her."