Out of The Mists

July 15, 1991
July 15, 1991

Table of Contents
July 15, 1991

Baseball Court
Mark Henry
Summer Basketball
Del Mar
Point After

Out of The Mists

Michael Stich burst from obscurity and Steffi Graf broke out of a dismal slump to win at the grayest of Wimbledons

There was nothing wrong with Wimbledon that a few layers of cashmere and a handful of mood elevators couldn't have fixed. Some of the images that cut through the gray, drizzled fortnight: Andre Agassi's bolt of white cloth, Jennifer Capriati's laser strokes, the shouting absence of top-ranked Monica Seles and a giddy, unprecedented middle Sunday that was the true star of the tournament. In the end, this cheerless Wimbledon was won by a pair of countrymen who flat slammed their way out of the murk—Steffi Graf and Michael Stich of Germany.

This is an article from the July 15, 1991 issue Original Layout

It was not a Wimbledon for the impatient, the distracted, the aging or the unconfident. Nothing and no one was stronger than the weather, not even the blistering serve of Stich, who arrived at Wimbledon as an unheralded, cranelike 22-year-old from Elmshorn, near Hamburg. Two weeks later he had defeated Stefan Edberg, the top seed and defending champion, in a four-set semifinal and then, in his first Grand Slam final, toppled his redheaded compatriot Boris Becker with a delivery that reached 126 mph. After falling to Stich in straight sets 6-4, 7-6, 6-4, Becker, a three-time Wimbledon champion and six-time finalist, blamed the inclement weather for shortening his temper and exhausting his always delicate spirits. He had been forced to play five oft-interrupted matches in seven days, while Stich's passage through the tournament was relatively smooth. "It took its toll," said Becker of the havoc wreaked by the rain. "It was not me out there. I never had a chance to win."

The weather affected the entire tournament. The temperatures for June were the coldest in England in 332 years, and rainfall hampered the scheduling on all but the last four days. But when the weather finally turned for the better, so did the tennis, particularly for the 22-year-old Graf. In the final, she twice held off third-ranked Gabriela Sabatini in the third set and closed out the 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 match with an executioner's forehand. "I needed this," said Graf, who had won Wimbledon in 1988 and '89 but had gone 18 months without a Grand Slam triumph and had fallen to No. 2 in the rankings. "I needed it for myself."

Similiarly, Stich, who served 97 aces in the tournament, found himself awash with emotion at the moment of triumph. He was close to tears as Becker embraced him following Wimbledon's first all-German final. This insurrectionist, seeded sixth but winner of only one previous pro tournament, an indoor event in Memphis in 1990, had been established by the oddsmakers as a 66-to-1 shot to win the title. Yet Stich dealt Becker only his third loss in 27 appearances on Centre Court and his first in straight sets.

Rain created mass confusion in the men's draw, as did the presence of six players in the quarterfinals who had never before advanced that far at Wimbledon. Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl were all gone by the fourth round. "It was not the nicest of trips I've had," said Lendl after falling in four sets in the third round to unseeded David Wheaton of Lake Minnetonka, Minn. Edberg defeated McEnroe in straight sets in the next round, "it's insane, I'm insane, we're all insane," said McEnroe of the waterlogged fortnight, shortly before he made a fit of an exit, hurling several expletives at a line judge and drawing a fine of $10,000.

Rain forced officials to declare the middle Sunday a day of play for the first time in the tournament's 114-year history. Normally, one can primarily obtain Wimbledon tickets by being an All England Club member or by winning the right to buy them in a lottery, but for this day they were sold on a first-come, first-served basis. The result was the most stirring day in Wimbledon history, with the crowds behaving as if they were at a football match. Defending champion Martina Navratilova emerged from the locker room to lead a Wave on Centre Court, Sabatini got the giggles when fans wolf-whistled her as she took off her warmup jacket, and Jimmy Connors said, "Where have they been for the last 20 years?"

Rain postponed Agassi's all-white debut for three days, which only heightened the silly drama of his first Centre Court appearance. Once a derider of the All England Club, Agassi did a public relations about-face. In his first Wimbledon appearance since 1987, he became a stammering, self-deprecating, if contrived, hit. "I have to admit I got caught up in the excitement and classiness of it all," he said. But Agassi blew his cover when he donned a pair of sleek Oakley sunglasses in the middle of his fourth-round defeat of Jacco Eltingh of Holland.

Rain made speculation on Seles's whereabouts the alternative sport of the fortnight. Seles, 17, who had won the Australian and French championships, the first two legs of the Grand Slam, withdrew from Wimbledon only 72 hours before it began. She then created a swirl of intrigue with a press release that stated only that she had suffered "a minor accident." Did this mean that Seles a) had fallen from her bicycle and skinned a knee? b) was about to undergo major knee surgery? or c) as the The Sun, a London tabloid, put it, IS MONICA A WIMBLEMUM?

In truth, Seles is most likely suffering from a painful case of shin splints caused by overplaying. Yet she forbade her representatives at IMG, who already considered her their most demanding client, to deny even the most outlandish rumors. Moreover, she had canceled the house she planned to rent in Wimbledon several days before the tournament. Thus, it appeared that Seles had decided not to play long before she officially withdrew. By backing out, was she protecting a hefty incentive clause in her Yonex racket contract that would be guaranteed if she were No. 1 after Wimbledon? She could have dropped to No. 2 had she entered and failed to reach the quarterfinals, which she reached last year. Her behavior seemed frivolous and self-absorbed. "She thinks she's Madonna," said a fellow player. Women's Tennis Association executive director and CEO Gerard Smith, whose phone calls to Seles went unreturned, announced "an inquiry" into her withdrawal and a $6,000 fine. Seles is scheduled to appear in a lucrative exhibition in Mahwah, N.J., starting on July 15.

Rain, too, interrupted Navratilova's quarterfinal loss to Capriati. The match was suspended overnight with Capriati having a 6-4 set in hand but trailing 3-2 on Navratilova's serve in the second. That evening, Stefano Capriati told his daughter, "Just go out and enjoy. Play. Have fun." That is exactly what she did the next morning, summoning up shots like a perfect backhand lob on the last of Navratilova's eight unconverted break points at 5-5. As the shot passed overhead, Navratilova whirled, stared and applauded with her racket. In the next game she lost her serve and her nerve, hitting a weary double fault on match point.

Navratilova, who had not failed to reach at least the semis since 1977, had been weighed upon by a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed against her in May by her former companion Judy Nelson, who is seeking half the assets Navratilova accumulated during their seven-year relationship. Navratilova trudged through the mist like a tired soldier, cramped and cautious. She had barely averted losing in the first round to Elna Reinach of South Africa, having to overcome service breaks on three occasions in the third set. After that match Navratilova seemed to summarize the entire fortnight when she said, "It felt dark. It felt like midnight."

The victory over Navratilova was Capriati's first in 12 attempts over one of the Big Four (Graf, Sabatini and Seles are the others). It also made her the youngest Wimbledon semifinalist in history—15 years and 96 days. Afterward, Jennifer's mother, Denise, considered the possibility of her daughter's winning the whole tournament and said, "You know, part of me doesn't want this to happen yet." It didn't, thanks to Sabatini, who strong-armed Jennifer 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals.

Graf's 10th victory in a Grand Slam was not her most convincing, but it was one of her most interesting. This is a more likable Graf than the ruthlessly impatient teenager who won the Grand Slam in 1988 and three of the four majors in '89. She had not won a Slam title since the Australian Open in January 1990, and she had endured scrutiny in the press for her father's alleged sexual indiscretions as well as for various injuries she had suffered. Tennis had become so joyless for Graf that her parents, Peter and Heidi, and coach, Pavel Slozil, pleaded with her to take things less seriously. That was not easy for someone so grim and introspective. "I am like a mussel sometimes, a closed shell," said Graf earlier this summer. "No one can get to me."

Yet she arrived at Wimbledon with a newly relaxed approach, fresh from a respite in Paris the weekend before the tournament. Graf said that if she proved anything to herself in the tension-wracked final it was that she "had the guts" to survive such a match. Graf had lost six of her last eight meetings with Sabatini, including the last five, but this time it was Sabatini who faltered.

The tennis was not exceptional until the third set, in which the lead whipsawed back and forth: Graf led 2-0, but Sabatini leveled the score at 2-2, and they continued on serve until the ninth game. Suddenly, Graf, once so unflappable, went shaky in the wrists. She double-faulted, whaled a forehand a yard over the baseline and double-faulted again to give Sabatini a chance to serve for the match at 5-4. But in the next game Sabatini missed a lunging volley and hit a backhand wide, and they were on serve again.

Then Graf went wobbly again. On break point at 5-5, she drilled an easy forehand volley into the net. Sabatini served for the match, but at 30-30 Graf won the rally of the day. She met Sabatini at the net for an exchange of volleys: Sabatini leapt for a floater but failed to put it away, and Graf replied with a running backhand volley into the open court. "After that game I kept thinking about that point," Sabatini would say later. "I just put it right in the middle, an easy ball for her. That was bad luck."

Graf won the game on the next point with a forehand service-return winner, whereupon Sabatini ambled back to the baseline with her heavy-legged John Wayne walk. That's where she stayed, spiritless, for the final two games. After cracking a crosscourt-forehand serve return on match point that Sabatini couldn't touch, Graf arched her back and screamed in exultation.

Stich's triumph one day later only further enhanced the darkhorse trend in the men's game. Three of the last four Grand Slam events have been won by players who seemed to emerge from nowhere: Sampras, winner of last year's U.S. Open; Jim Courier, who won the French Open in June; and now Stich. Never have the talents at the top been so unreliable or the rackets so powerful. Because of these nuclear-powered rackets, finesse and shot-making are out. The order of the day is power. Case in point: the quarterfinal between Agassi and Wheaton. All you needed to know about that encounter—aside from the fact that Agassi did another fifth-set disappearing act—was that Wheaton served 15 aces and 14 double faults to earn a meeting with Becker in the semis. It was no accident that all four semifinalists are among the game's hardest servers. Imagine Edberg's dismay when he lost 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 to Stich despite never dropping his serve. "I hope it never happens again," said Edberg.

Stich has to be regarded as the most anonymous champion since Becker, who won his first All England crown as an unseeded 17-year-old in 1985. When asked during one postmatch conference to describe himself, Stich replied, "Could we have another question please?" His tastes, it turns out, are for the violent and the cerebral. He likes Clint Eastwood and the Scorpions, a German hard rock band. His favorite movie is Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and his favorite book is something called Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit (The Discovery of Slowness). A deceptive athlete, Stich is also a devoted golfer. No one in England figured out how to pronounce his name correctly. "If I say it, you still can't pronounce it," he said. It goes something like SHTEEKH.

The guy who won Wimbledon was ranked 795 in the world in 1987 but by the start of 1991 had risen to 42. Stich is coached by Mark Lewis, the brother of a similarly unknown Wimbledon finalist, Chris Lewis, who lost to McEnroe in 1983 and has not been heard from since—until now. Stich, however, is no Chris Lewis. His game has no holes, he can play on all surfaces—note his semifinal berth at Roland Garros this year—and despite his 6'4" frame, he moves with elegance.

Still, in his only previous meeting with Becker, Stich won only three games in two sets. Perhaps that explains why Becker seemed uninspired on Sunday, while Stich felt something "magic" as soon as he stepped onto Centre Court. "I felt I could touch every ball," he said.

Stich broke Becker's serve in the first game of the match, and from then on Becker was by turns heavy-limbed and infuriated. "The problem is not his legs; it's his head," his manager, Ion Tiriac, had said the day before the match. By its end, Becker concurred.

He had led only at 3-1 in the second set, and he was shredded by Stich's elegant backhand winners and his 15 aces. "I was not in the match from the first point," said Becker. "My mind was far away."

Indeed, Becker's most enlivened moments were his tantrums. However, when the torture ended, he stepped over the net and hugged Stich with a mixture of affection and a true sense of the moment. "Because I know how it feels," Becker said. "I know how important the day can be in a life. I know that his life is not going to be the same anymore."

PHOTODAVID WALBERGIn the semifinals, Stich never broke Edberg's serve, but he still volleyed his way to a four-set victory.PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/ALLSPORTToo much rain and too many matches in too few days took a toll on Becker, who was bloodied, battered and beaten in the sun on Sunday.PHOTOBOB MARTIN/ALLSPORT[See caption above.]PHOTOCARYN LEVYAfter he outslugged Agassi with both fists, Wheaton got KO'd in the semis by Becker.PHOTODAVID WALBERGGraf took a giant stride toward No. 1 by winning her first Grand Slam title in 18 months.PHOTOCARYN LEVYSabatini had her first Wimbledon final in hand, but lost her grip on it.