Friday, 20 June 2014

1988 Wimbledon

Continuing my 1988 Grand Slam tennis series, a look back this week on the 1988 Wimbledon Championships. A tournament that saw one Grand Slam ambition end and another continue, more British disappointment, classic semi-finals, and a Swede confirm his undoubted talent by winning the Wimbledon title.

Seedings and draw

The Wimbledon seeding committee made the decision to slightly adjust the world ranking positions for the men, trying to take into account the previous record of each player on grass. Ivan Lendl was still number one, with Grand Slam chaser Mats Wilander two, but the returning John McEnroe was seeded 8th, despite a world ranking of 19. Boris Becker and Henri Leconte were both seeded a place higher than their world ranking, due to the fact that Miroslav Mecir was dropped down three places after having not taken part in a tournament since April.

It was the top half of the men's draw that had tennis fans drawling. The likes of Becker (9/4 favourite), Lendl (4/1), defending champion Pat Cash (11/2), Leconte (12/1), and Tim Mayotte (33/1) were in this section, with The Times' Rex Bellamy pointing out that "Whoever emerges as king of the jungle (from this half) will have sharp claws but may also be suffering from battle fatigue," something Becker would mention later on in the tournament. The bottom half seemed less daunting, with a combination of Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg (a tasty 13/2 for the title), Jimmy Connors, Miroslav Mecir and Slobodan Zivojinovic, some unproven on grass, and some trying to prove that their best days were not behind them.

Interestingly, the women's seedings mirrored the exact positions of the world rankings, a reflection of the feeling that the top four in the world - Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver and Chris Evert - were expected to reach the semi-finals. The fact that Graf was a 4/6 favourite for the title and Navratilova 7/4 highlighted the fact that these two were expected to be head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, and so it would eventually prove. But along the way to the last four, Navratilova, Shriver and Evert would have their fair share of scrapes, albeit in a rather uneventful women's tournament (before the semis at least). When the main talking points were Gabriela Sabatini's homesickness, Barbara Potter changing her shirt on court (behind a towel shield held by some ball girls), and the smouldering good looks of Sabatini, then it emphasises the predictability of it all.

We're supposed to be at home

The usual look back at the British involvement in a Grand Slam event, which is as brief as the section that follows. Of the 22 British players participating, only six made it through to the second round, with Julie Salmon the sole player to progress beyond this point. There were the odd glimmers of hope. Jeremy Bates fought back admirably from a two set deficit and then 0-3 down in the decider to win against Christo van Rensburg (a man who had beaten John McEnroe the week before in the Wirral International Classic). And Jo Durie had served for the match against Ros Fairbank in the second round, but Salmon apart, that was really as good as it got.

Prior to Wimbledon, Bates had made a lot of positive noises about the work Australian Warren Jacques had put in with him. Yet after his defeat to Robert Seguso, and Stephen Botfield's loss to Simon Youl, Bates' protestations looked a little hollow. In his defence, Bates had seen his ranking improve by over 100 places in a year, but for a British public that judged everything on Wimbledon, the usual procession of defeats were expected and merely accepted.

David Powell asked the question in The Times: when will the nation that stages the most renowned tennis championship have a player worthy of the occasion? Sue Mappin, the women's national team manager predicted the early 1990s, with Ian Peacock, the executive director of the LTA plumping for the mid-1990s. Either way, the lack of available tennis facilities and coaches were given as the main reasons for the depression in the British game. A sorry state of affairs. And people wonder why I am so defensive of Tim Henman's subsequent achievements. Six Grand Slam semi-finals for a British tennis player seemed like a distant dream to me after what I had witnessed during my tennis infancy.

Courts

Before too long, the conditions of the courts at Wimbledon were being heavily criticised. Pat Cash blasted Court No. 1, in his second round five-set struggle against Argentina's Javier Frana. "It's so chewed up in the middle, just a mess," and Cash would certainly not be the last player to voice his concerns. The "cabbage patch" or "beach" of Court 1 should be dug up and resurfaced in the opinion of Becker, with Navratilova pointing out: "During my doubles match with Pam Shriver we spent most of the time replacing small divots".

Ivan Lendl hit out at Court No. 2: "The rough on my golf course at home doesn't look as bad as the rough on this court", and Jimmy Connors was another who felt that the court "was a pain". Former British number one John Lloyd was reportedly censored by the All England Club for his opinions, though it hardly seemed to controversial a statement that "It is the talk of the locker room that the courts are not in a good condition".

An official statement was released in an attempt to explain the situation: "The grass is both denser and softer than normal", but this did little to improve the players' moods. Apparently the fine weather in the first week meant that the surfaces, which had been planted with a new type of seed according to Lloyd, had suffered due to constant usage, but surely it was a basic requirement that the courts could survive a certain number of matches? Hardly ideal, and a little embarrassing for such a prestigious tournament.

McEnroe fails to roll back the years

John McEnroe had not played at Wimbledon since his 1985 quarter final defeat to Kevin Curren - in 1986 he was taking a rest from the sport, and in 1987 McEnroe was injured - so his return to SW19 was the talk of the town before the tournament begun. McEnroe was mentioned by many journalists when it came to picking a winner, Nigel Clarke of the Daily Mirror going as far to state that "I believe he can win Wimbledon", and coach Peter Fleming was also bullish: "Can he win Wimbledon? You had better believe it".

Realistically though, McEnroe knew it would take time for him to compete for the major prizes in tennis once again, but it was good to have him back, as Navratilova amongst many others was keen to point out. Apparently the 1988 version of McEnroe was desperate to be liked, to have the crowd behind him, and prove that he had matured. His comfortable first round win over Austrian Horst Skoff was neither a great test of his technique or temperament, but there was a greater examination waiting round the corner in the shape of the Australian Wally Masur.

McEnroe's straight sets defeat was not entirely unexpected, after all, Masur had reached the semi-finals of the 1987 Australian Open (on grass), but the manner of his loss was an eye opener. "The way I played I couldn't have even won the women's title," stated a frank McEnroe, as he crashed out to the Southampton-born Masur (the desperate British press shoe-horning in this fact wherever possible). "Psychologically I'm not in the right frame of mind to play my best, and physically, in the last couple of days, my body has let me down".

In the second set tie break, the apparently reformed McEnroe let his mask slip, as what looked like a bad call went against him. Slamming his racquet to the ground, McEnroe was given a code violation, and argued his case with umpire Rudi Berger, before resuming the match. The old McEnroe may not have been much in evidence in terms of his ability, but there were still signs that the confrontational side of his game was bubbling under the surface.

Clash of the champions

Many felt that the winner would come from the top half of the men's draw, and in particular the likely quarter final between the last two winners of the tournament in Boris Becker and Pat Cash. Becker was in imperious form on his route to the last eight, not dropping a set, indeed his main contributions were a moment when a powerful shot of his struck a female net cord judge (leading to an impromptu massage), and another incident in which he parked in a public car park and reportedly refused to pay the £5 fee.

Cash's path was littered with a few more obstacles. His second round match with Frana spanned 3 hours 10 minutes, the Australian required to come back from 2-1 down in sets to beat a man that he had only conceded two games to when beating him recently at Queen's. As well as his complaints about Court 1, Cash also had issues with Court 14 and the surrounding environment. An easy straight sets win over Andrei Olhovskiy was only part of the story, as Cash described Court 14 as "a zoo", angry that photographers and fans were allowed to get too close and disturb his concentration. Cash sent for referee Alan Mills, and the problem abated, but throughout his stay at Wimbledon, the defending champion was showing the strain of trying to hold on to his trophy.

Becker stressed that his quarter final with Cash would be "played in the mind" and that "It is a match that has nothing to do with tennis". If so, the German seemed to have the upper hand, his mental strength apparently attributed to the good work that he had put in with sports psychologist Geoff Bond. Viewed as a contest between Becker's strong serve and Cash's volleying, many a comparison was drawn with the recent Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight clash at Atlantic City, a fight that only lasted 91 seconds. Sports fans were about to have another dose of disappointment.

Becker's 6-4 6-3 6-4 win was as big an anti-climax as the boxing, as Becker's serving and ferocious forehand crushed the reigning champion, who hardly helped himself with some poor service games. The only real moment of drama occurred when Cash tumbled over the net on stretching for a shot in the second set, with Becker playfully copying his opponent. Cash was not amused though, allegedly calling Becker a "smart ass" as they reluctantly shook hands. Cash did stage a comeback in the final set, leading 4-2, but two double faults from Cash gave Becker a break back, and he soon sent Cash packing.

"This gives me confidence that I'm playing good tennis," said Becker. "But it does not give me the trophy. You have to win seven matches and I have only won five," he sensibly added, although as far as the press were concerned, it was hard to look beyond Becker now for a winner of the Wimbledon title.

A dream ends: Part I

Mats Wilander arrived at Wimbledon with a Grand Slam dream, perhaps a distant one, but a chance nonetheless. "Somewhere deep inside I still feel that grass is never going to be my natural surface," stated Wilander, who had never been beyond the quarter finals at Wimbledon. As the tournament developed, Wilander began to talk up his chances a little more - "I'm never going to feel 100 percent on grass but it's getting close" - but after an impressive fourth round win over the dangerous Zivojinovic, the Swede had quietly progressed to the quarter finals without dropping a set.

"If he continues to move at this speed and volley as well as he did yesterday (against Zivojinovic) behind a perfectly adequate grass court serve, then the dream of that seemingly impossible Grand Slam may not be so misty after all," wrote The Times' Richard Evans. The only problem for Wilander was his next opponent; Miroslav Mecir appeared to have Wilander's number, and for the 7th time in their last 11 meetings, the Big Cat would treat Wilander like a pesky mouse.

"I have always feared Mecir," admitted Wilander after his 6-3 6-1 6-3 defeat. "I suppose I just don't know how to play him". A refreshingly honest assessment from Wilander, who would ultimately go on to  claim his third major of the season at the US Open. He may not have been able to claim the Grand Slam, but his efforts in 1988 were incredible.

One for old times' sake

Both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had their adventures before booking a semi-final date with each other. Evert lost sets against Christina Singer and Katrina Adams, before a ruthless win over Helena Sukova in the quarter finals got things back on track. Navratilova was lucky to survive her own quarter final with Ros Fairbank, trailing by a set and 3-0 and 4-2 in the second set, and also 4-2 down in the decider. "I was quitting at 3-0 after two breaks in the second set," stated Navratilova, before the thought of a record ninth Wimbledon title spurred her on.

Navratilova was expected to brush Evert aside, although Evert had defeated her great rival at the same stage of the Australian Open. It appeared as if the form book was being adhered to though, as Navratilova easily took the first set 6-1, but during a second set interrupted by rain, Evert slowly began to disturb the rhythm of her opponent, and took the match into a thrilling deciding set.

Despite trailing 3-1, Evert broke back, in a final set of nerve wracking tension that ebbed and flowed as the minutes ticked by. Evert saved a match point at 4-5 down, but the second time round she would not be so lucky. Clipping the net cord, everyone looked on as the ball dropped down and seemed to clip the line, but after what felt like an age, the line judge extended his arm to indicate that the ball was out, to the astonishment of the centre court crowd.

Evert was stunned, barely able to make her way to the net to shake Navratilova's hand, and so enraged that she refused to afford the same courtesy to umpire Dick Lumb. I didn't blame her at the time though, as I was just as furious watching the match at home. Evert's last chance at toppling Navratilova at Wimbledon had ended in controversial fashion, but at least the women's game had at last witnessed a match of such skill and theatre.

A dream ends: Part II

And so on to the annual saga of Ivan Lendl and his quest to win Wimbledon. If he was going to win the title he so craved, Lendl was definitely doing things the hard way. A tough four set match with Darren Cahill was followed by a five set affair with Michiel Schapers, and then came an epic against Mark Woodforde. Four times Lendl served to stay in the match, saving a match point along the way, as he finally saw off the determined Australian 10-8 in the deciding set, after four hours and 46 minutes of intense drama.

After an impressive win over Mayotte, Lendl found himself in his fifth Wimbledon semi-final, not bad for a man who apparently did not like grass and the serve-volley art. In a match delayed by rain and then the lengthy Edberg-Mecir match, Lendl found himself in trouble against Becker, losing the first two sets, during which Becker cut his hair as it was getting in his eyes, leading to the hilarious Hair/Herr Becker headlines the next day.

Lendl was as tough as they came though, and he managed to drag the match into Saturday by saving three match points, and taking a third set tie break 15-13 at 8.59pm. Alas Lendl, who played the match with a heavy strapping to protect a thigh injury, could not complete the comeback, as Becker won the final set 6-4. Lendl's hunt for that elusive title would go on and on.

Edberg passes his test

It is strange reading the newspaper reports of the time to study the various opinions on Stefan Edberg. A man who was quite happy out of the limelight, or Mr Anonymous as the Daily Express called him, his nerve and stomach for the fight were forever being questioned, even though he had already won two Australian Opens. His route to the semi-final had seen him overcome tricky opponents in Guy Forget (who had reached the semi-final at Queen's), Richey Reneburg (who had beaten Lendl recently on grass in Nottingham), Ken Flach, Simon Youl, and Patrick Kuhnen (who had knocked Jimmy Connors out).

None of this seemed to matter though with the British press, as still his heart was doubted. But how he proved the critics wrong in his semi-final with Mecir. Trailing by two sets, Edberg appeared to be going down without a fight, before he "got up off the floor, more than once" in the words of Bellamy. Edberg's recovery was not easy - he saved six break points in both the third and fourth sets - but gradually the Swede edged his way back into a contest that after 75 minutes of Mecir magic appeared to be adding fuel to the fire that Edberg lacked guts.

Even in the decider Edberg was struggling, slipping 3-1 behind before reeling off four games at the cost of just two points. When the winning moment came, Edberg fell back on the green sheeting behind the line judges, slumping back in joy and relief at what he had achieved. "It took guts and that pleases me, because I know what people have said about my temperament," a delighted Edberg told the press. "He's made an awful lot of people look silly," said Edberg's coach Tony Pickard. He had only just begun.

A new chapter

Steffi Graf's march to the women's final was as ruthless as ever. In conceding just 17 games along the way, Graf had taken her run of straight sets victories in Grand Slam singles matches to twenty, but there could be no doubting that a final meeting with Navratilova would be a stern test of her grass court game. Graf had come a long way since her defeat to Navratilova in the 1987 final, and was favourite for the third leg of her Grand Slam, but at one point it looked as if her ambition for a first Wimbledon title was fading.

At first Navratilova seemed to be going the way of all other challengers, as Graf raced into a 5-3 lead. Yet surprisingly Graf then lost six straight games and at 0-2 down in the second set, Navratilova looked to be on her way to winning a 48th consecutive match at Wimbledon and pulling ahead of Helen Wills Moody as the Queen of the centre court.

However, with a change of racquet came a change of fortune for the German. Nine games in a row left Navratilova powerless, skulking around the court and agitated by spots of rain on her glasses. Graf's aggression was relentless, her forehand and serve improving as the match progressed, and her speed across the court frightening. The winning point may have been slightly fortuitous - a net cord leaving Navratilova helpless - but there was no disputing that Graf was the worthy winner.

"If you have to lose, you might as well lose to the better player on the final day - and pass the torch," said Navratilova, as she talked about "the end of a chapter". For her part, Graf admitted that she had not really been pushed as hard in the last few months as Navratilova had forced her to play during the final, which was a very accurate assessment of the state of the women's game at the time. But with the Wimbledon title under her belt - she would also win the women's doubles with Sabatini - there seemed to be nothing stopping Graf's inevitable journey to the Grand Slam.

Awesome Edberg

Even after the Mecir match, there were still suspicions that Edberg could not deliver on the biggest stage, with Becker expected to make it a German double, especially after Becker had beaten the same man in the Queen's final. Disappointingly, the final would finish on a Monday, after more rain had delayed the start until 6.34pm on the Sunday. In the 22 minutes of play on the first day, Edberg started well, at one point holding a break point for a 4-0 lead. But Becker held on, and broke back, meaning the players went to bed with Edberg leading 3-2.

After a 99-minute delay on the Monday, Becker's run continued as he surged into a 5-3 lead, and eventually took the opening set, yet Edberg hit back by taking the next emphatically in the tie break (7-2). It was during the tie break that the first signs of frustration became etched on Becker's face, as he angrily swished at the ground in a way that suggested all was not well. Edberg had gained the upper hand, breaking for a 2-1 lead in the third set, with Becker given a code violation for hurling his racquet to the ground. Edberg had all the momentum.

Such was the Swede's dominance that he only dropped three points on his serve in a run of four games that gave him the third set. And so it would continue in the final set. Becker needed a quick response; what he didn't need was to immediately lose the opening game of the set on his own serve. The tale of the final could be summed up in body language alone; where Edberg was bouncing around the court, Becker was slouching, a moody presence who looked drained. Becker was broken again in the fifth game, Edberg simply too good for anything Becker threw at him.

As Andy Murray can attest, serving for the Wimbledon title is not so simple. All six points in the final game went to Edberg's second serve, before a Becker backhand into the net saw Edberg fall to the ground in celebration. His critics had now been well and truly silenced, with Edberg's superb display of serve-volley tennis surely proof that here was a special talent. "I've proved a lot to other people and myself," commented Edberg. "This could be the best match I have ever played in a Grand Slam tournament". Boris Becker could certainly vouch for that.

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