An ill wind blasted through Wimbledon's first Tuesday like a buffoon at teatime, rattling nerves, fingering crumpets, flipping the table with a glorious smash. There went No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf, a victim of what British tennis legend Fred Perry called "wet, greasy and slippery" gusts, as well as the cool intensity of unseeded Lori McNeil of the U.S. Graf, winner of the last three Wimbledons and five of the last six, was blown out of the draw faster than any other defending women's champ in 101 years, and after she cracked nobody was safe. The next day broke sunny, but the upset gales only picked up speed. Michael Stich, the men's No. 2 seed and the 1991 champion, fell in straight sets to a qualifier named Bryan Shelton and was booed for exiting the first-round loss without shaking the chair umpire's hand. "I can crawl off the court next time," sneered Stich.
This is an article from the July 4, 1994 issue
The Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, long a refuge for the high and mighty, took special delight this year in making the elite suffer. In last Thursday's second-round play, two-time king Stefan Edberg went down, as did 1993 finalist Jim Courier—at the hands of Guy Forget, whose ranking had dropped to 1,130 while he recovered from knee surgery—and by Sunday eight men's seeds and seven seeded women were gone in one of the most chaotic opening weeks in Wimbledon history. "I don't think anyone's ever seen a first week like this one," said Perry, who has been watching the tournament since he last won it, in 1936.
Those given to theorizing cited the extreme weather, the equalizing effect of high-tech rackets, a lack of hunger in the top players and, perhaps most plausibly, the unprecedented amount of depth in the game, particularly on the men's side. "Everybody thinks he can beat the opponent every time he goes onto the court, because every player plays well now," said 113th-ranked Kenneth Carlsen of Denmark after he had upset the third-ranked Edberg in five sets.
Whatever the reason, Wimbledon afflicted old powers and nouveaus alike. The next day, in abruptly oppressive heat, Carlsen retired from his match against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman because of a stomach virus. He knew it was time, he said, "when I threw up on court." Britain's Chris Wilkinson inspired the locals with a minirun but lost to Wayne Ferreira of South Africa in the third round after tearing off a toenail while coming out of his bathroom the night before. "It was sort of hanging off," Wilkinson said. "So I was having problems with that."
Quite. Yet the most astonishing stiff upper lip belonged to McNeil, who held off far more than two rain delays to beat Graf and spark the best showing by African-Americans at a Grand Slam event since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, in 1975. Her childhood friend Zina Garrison Jackson defeated second-seeded Arantxa Sànchez Vicario on Monday to move into the quarterfinals with McNeil, and Shelton, a Huntsville, Ala., native who was ranked No. 120, made it to the round of 16 before losing. Shelton said his defeat of Stich was inspired by the play of McNeil, his former mixed doubles partner.
No wonder. McNeil dictated the play and the tempo throughout her match with Graf, serving well and dropping volleys that made Graf look helpless. McNeil's 7-5, 7-6 victory included a rally from two games down in the second set, and at match's end she walked toward the net smiling broadly as a huge ovation from the Centre Court crowd rained down. It was, McNeil said, the best moment she has ever known. "It seemed very short, but at the same time—if this makes any sense—it seemed very long and very loud," she said. "It was a great feeling, a great moment for me."
In one sense the outcome was no shocker: The 20th-ranked McNeil had defeated Graf the last time they met, at the 1992 Virginia Slims Championships, and her game is perfectly suited to the speedy grounds at Wimbledon. At 30, however, McNeil is far beyond the usual age for a tennis breakthrough. She blossomed a bit in the mid-1980s—making the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1986 and at the Australian Open in '87 and beating Chris Evert to reach the '87 U.S. Open semifinals—but lacked the concentration to stick in the Top 10. "She had never been focused," says McNeil's mother, Dorothy. "She just enjoyed the travel."
At times Dorothy and her husband, Charlie, would watch Lori play and see that there was little use in cheering. "He'd say, 'Her mind is in Hawaii, and the job is right here,' " Dorothy says. But on Jan. 7 of this year, everything changed. Charlie, an All-Pro defensive back for the San Diego Chargers in the early '60s, took Dorothy to work that day in Houston, wrote a note and then killed himself with a gun. He was 57.
Charlie had been a superb strong safety, more openly emotional and competitive than his daughter. From 1960 to '63 he was part of a secondary that accounted for interceptions in 46 consecutive games, still an NFL record. But two knee surgeries forced him to retire, and after that he bounced from a job in real estate to another in offshore oil to driving a cab. According to Dorothy, Charlie hadn't worked for a couple of years, and he had lapsed into depression. He sought professional help, but it didn't take. "Six months before his death he said, 'They cannot help me; I'm going to have to help myself,' " Dorothy says. "Something happened in this life, and he just started to withdraw."
Lori was in Sydney on Jan. 7 for a tune-up tournament before the Australian Open. It was morning, and she had just had breakfast with her former coach. John Wilkerson. Returning to his room, Wilkerson ran into Garrison, who, like McNeil, was a product of Wilkerson's tennis program for kids at Houston's MacGregor Park. Garrison had just gotten word about the suicide, and together they went to tell McNeil. "When we went to the courts, she was waving and laughing," recalls Wilkerson. "She didn't know."
Says Garrison, "I couldn't look at her. I kept saying, "You need to call home.' And she said, 'I'll call them later.' I said, 'No. Now.' "
Six months haven't removed the pain. Lori and Charlie were close, her father traveling with her to tournaments, giving advice, making sure to be the one to drop her at airports. "It was very important to him that I go out and give everything I have," says Lori. "He taught me about sports: You're going to have good times, you're going to have tough times—you just have to ride them out."
She knew her father was down, but she didn't think he would commit suicide. "That's probably the greatest loss I'll ever have," McNeil says. "I was fortunate to have my dad for 30 years, and I was at the age when...I don't know...I was able to handle it better than I would have four or live years ago. I really believe that. I just know that he's here in spirit, and that helps me every day. I think about him. I always think about him."
It wasn't easy coming back. McNeil didn't return to Australia after the funeral—snapping her tour-best string of 35 straight appearances at Grand Slam events—but she went back to the tour two weeks later in Tokyo, losing her first match there in straight sets. At the end of March she left the circuit for six weeks.
"It was real hard for her," Dorothy says. "She did a lot of reading and spent time with her nephew to take her mind off her problems. That was getting over her grief."
In early June, McNeil beat Garrison in the final of a grass-court tournament in Birmingham. England, for her first tournament win of the year. Her coaches, friends and family all noticed that something had changed: McNeil's famed concentration lapses weren't nearly as glaring. Coping with her lather's death "made me stronger," she says. "I feel much better and more at peace with myself this year."
Part of that she credits to new coach Mervyn Webster and to friends like actress Robin Givens and Givens's mother, Ruth Roper. McNeil met Givens and Roper eight years ago through Robin's younger sister, Stephanie, who was attending Nick Bollettieri's tennis camp in Bradenton. Fla., and Lori grew close to the family before Givens's marriage to Mike Tyson unraveled in the fall of 1988. "She and Michael stayed up forever talking," Givens said last week at Wimbledon. "She was a little down before a match in Newport, and she and Michael were together constantly. He would tell her, 'Lori, you're so nice, but you've got to kill, you've got to finish.' And then she went and won the tournament."
Tyson sent McNeil 1,000 roses to celebrate. "I think, actually, she's missed having those exchanges with him." Givens said.
Givens also said that McNeil provided support during her breakup with Tyson and that Tyson struck McNeil during one spat in 1988. "To tell you the truth, that's when she really became part of the family," Givens said. Ever since, Givens has felt "somewhat guilty" about that incident. She thinks that coming to Wimbledon in a show of support after Charlie's death, keeping Lori loose by making her do the prematch dishes, is the least she could do.
All of it helped. The supposedly less steely McNeil handled the winds better than Graf. "I made up my mind not to let them bother me," she says. And though Graf publicly doubted whether McNeil could go on to win Wimbledon, McNeil didn't let the assessment sting. She went on to beat Yone Kamio, Kristie Boogert and Florencia Labat to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in seven years.
Win or lose, McNeil isn't given to emotional display. When she called her mom after defeating Graf, Dorothy told her to enjoy the moment, but Lori said there were too many more matches to play. "That's been her character all her life." says Dorothy. "Whether she's churning inside, I don't think anyone knows. No one knows what's going on inside."
Here's one clue. Around her neck McNeil wears a chain. Dangling from it is a gold pendant shaped like half a heart. The edge where the rest of the heart should be is cut jaggedly, and DAD and Charlie McNeil's number, 27, are carved into the gold. "He has the other half," says McNeil, who had the pendants made when she came home from Australia. "His says, I LOVE YOU, DAD. LORI."
Before Charlie was buried, his daughter laid the cool, cut heart on his chest. Then she said goodbye.