Tuesday, 12 August 2014

1988 US Open Tennis

A look back this week on the final Grand Slam of the 1988 tennis season: the US Open. A tournament which saw the completion of Steffi Graf's glorious year, another win for Mats Wilander and Sweden, more British disappointment, a shock for Martina Navratilova, and the continued rise of Andre Agassi.

This completes my series on the 1988 Grand Slam tennis season:

Australian Open
French Open

Brits abroad

You will probably not be too surprised to discover that as far as the US Open was concerned for the British players involved, it was very much a case of same old, same old. Of the five British players in both draws, only Andrew Castle was capable of even winning a set, as he, Jeremy Bates, Monique Javer, Clare Wood, and Jo Durie were knocked out immediately. Five years earlier, Durie had reached the US Open semi-finals, but the chances of a repeat happening any time in the near future for a British man or woman seemed ludicrous.

The situation was frankly embarrassing, although the LTA, Sports Council and All England Club were at least trying to do something about it. Each organisation had agreed to invest £500,000 a year for five years towards the Indoor Tennis Initiative, with the intention to build 50 new tennis centres up and down the country, in order to make the sport more accessible for the general public and less middle-class and elitist.

The pay as you play scheme would hopefully unearth a gem or two in the years to come, and at the time it was perceived as a good move, yet time has of course revealed that this plan alone did not address all of the ills in the British game. Something needed doing though, and the organisations involved should be commended for their actions. It was better than doing nothing at all.

The Parking Lot Press Conference

Rain had interrupted play on the first day, and very little of note happened on court during the opening round of matches. But a significant event would take place in a parking lot at Flushing Meadows two days into the US Open that would shape the future of the mens' game. Perturbed at a lack of tournament money, a crowded Grand Prix schedule, and a lack of clout when it came to making decisions in the sport, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) decided that enough was enough, and a stand had to be taken.

Headed by Hamilton Jordan, the Executive Director of the ATP, and backed up by players such as Mats Wilander and Tim Mayotte, a temporary podium was erected in a car park after the US Tennis Association had initially refused the ATP permission to state their case in the usual press room. The proposals were laid out bare by Jordan and Wilander: after the 1989 Grand Prix tour finished (run by the Men's Tennis Council), the ATP would set up their own circuit comprising of 14 events, a move that would threaten to rock the tennis world.

Eight of the top ten players in the world had signed the initial agreement, despite doubts as to whether any of Grand Slam tournaments would permit the rebels to take part in their events. At first it appeared as if the major tournament organisers would reject the plans of the ATP, but gradually it dawned on the various committees that player power would win the day, after all, who would want to watch Grand Slams without the top players in the world?

So the seeds of the ATP tour that we see today were planted in that less than smooth press conference in a car park in New York during the summer of 1988. The players of today should be grateful that this risky move paid off, as they have been reaping the rewards ever since.

Seeds sent crashing

After the relatively quiet opening (on court), things started to liven up as the first week progressed. Seeds began to crash by the wayside in the men's event, with the Australians in particular enjoying their spell of giant killing. Darren Cahill caused the first big shock, dumping a less than fit number five seed Boris Becker out of the tournament on his way to the semi-finals, with Jason Stoltenberg accounting for seventh seed Yannick Noah. John Frawley defeated 10th seed Henri Leconte, and to complete the Aussie seed-crushing exercise, Mark Woodforde sent John McEnroe packing.

By the time the men's quarter finals were upon us, only Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander were remaining from the sixteen seeded players. Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg had lost a five-setter to Aaron Krickstein in the fourth round, complaining bitterly about playing his second match in succession under the floodlights, in blustery conditions. Miroslav Mecir, a man who had pushed Edberg so close at Wimbledon, lost to Emilio Sanchez, with Edberg's fellow Swedes Jonas Svensson and Anders Jarryd also knocked out. All Swedish eyes were now firmly fixed on Wilander.

Six women's seeds also failed to make it past week one, the most notable victims being Pam Shriver and Natasha Zvereva, although unlike the men's singles there were no unseeded players through to the last eight. Sisters Manuela and Katerina Maleeva both reached the quarter finals, but the family outing ended there as the pair ran into the formidable duo of Chris Evert and Steffi Graf respectively. After the earlier surprises, slowly but surely, the cream began to rise to the top in both draws.

Passing the baton

American tennis was in a state of transition come the latter part of the 1980s. The era of Connors and McEnroe was drifting to an end, and the nation was desperately searching for a superstar to step into their trainers. The 1988 US Open would witness the debuts of future heroes in Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, with a 16-year-old Michael Chang highlighting his potential during two deciding set wins on his way to the fourth round, but it would be Chang's conqueror that would carry the weight of American expectation in the immediate future.

Andre Agassi joked that it was sometimes a draining experience trying to entertain spectators in his unique style, but he certainly was not having a problem winning tennis matches in the lead-up to the final Grand Slam tournament of the season. His first round win over Philip Johnson was his 23rd consecutive singles victory, and three more wins over fellow Americans Rick Leach, Johan Kriek, and Chang, set up an enticing quarter-final encounter against Jimmy Connors.

At 36, Connors was twice the age of Agassi. Indeed a 4-year-old Agassi had enjoyed the privilege of hitting a few balls with the American legend in Las Vegas in 1974, the year Connors had first won the US Open. A 19,500 crowd packed in to see the battle of the personalities, a raucous atmosphere inevitable as many tried in vain to get behind the old favourite. "He's a punk and you're a legend," cried out one such enthusiast, but it was obvious that Connors was fighting a losing battle.

The younger man was simply too good; faster and stronger than his opponent, his 6-2 7-6 6-1 win as one-sided as it sounds. Agassi may have irked Connors with his post-match comments - "I'd predicted that it would be 6-3 6-3 6-3. Jimmy surprised me. I didn't think he had that much in him" - yet it was apparent that the arrogance of youth was signalling the move from one era to the next.

Navratilova bows out

As the tournament commenced, the experts felt that there was really only one woman capable of derailing Steffi Graf's Grand Slam hopes; Martina Navratilova. The 31-year-old had not experienced a happy year, however, losing her number one status to Graf, and only reaching the final of one Grand Slam event (Wimbledon). But as the US Open neared, she held firm hopes of being able to spoil Graf's party. Alas it didn't quite work out like that.

Navratilova's quarter final loss to Zina Garrison - who had not won any of the previous 21 matches between the pair - meant that for the first time since 1980, she would finish the season without a Grand Slam singles title. In truth, Navratilova had already shown signs that all was not well. In the previous round, Elna Reinach had been serving for a 5-0 lead in the first set, before Navratilova staged a comeback, yet against Garrison she would not be so fortunate.

Trailing 6-4 and 5-0, the fact that Navratilova dragged herself back into the match was more due to the nerves displayed by Garrison than anything else. Amazingly Navratilova fought back to take the second set on a tie-break, before Garrison surged ahead 5-3 in the decider. Garrison again failed to seal the deal though, as Navratilova clung on grimly, yet she was merely delaying the inevitable. After two hours and 33 minutes of fluctuating emotions and tension, Garrison limped over the line, winning the match on her sixth match point, her 6-4 6-7 7-5 win apparently removing Graf's biggest obstacle.

"Once I'd lost to Zina I thought 'So much for trying to stop Steffi'," Navratilova later admitted, the former number one revealing that she had been guilty of thinking too far ahead and not taking care of the here and now. Only once during Graf's glorious year did the pair meet in a Grand Slam match - the Wimbledon final, a match in which Graf was tested fully - a major regret for Navratilova in a season that she would want to forget in a hurry.

The chances are that the German would have been far too strong in the final, but Navratilova didn't even give herself an opportunity to test Graf's resolve as she tried to handle the pressures of claiming the Grand Slam.

Graf's Grand Slam

And so to Steffi Graf's inexorable march to the first women's Grand Slam in a calendar year since Margaret Court in 1970. The pressure of the achievement was perceived by some as perhaps the only ray of light for the rest of the field, but in the early rounds Graf continued her usual destruction of anyone put before her. The 19-year-old dropped just four games in her opening three matches, and the extent of Graf's domination can be judged by the fact that her 74 minute win over Patty Fendick made news because for once the German was stretched a little.

Graf's straight forward win over Katerina Maleeva set up a semi-final date with Chris Evert, but this would be a walkover quite literally. Evert's bout of gastroenteritis meant that Graf progressed to the final without a ball being hit, with the illness unfortunately having an impact on the men's doubles final too, with Rick Leach unable to partner Jim Pugh thus giving Sergio Casal and Emilio Sanchez the title.

Graf would face Gabriela Sabatini in the final, the first Argentinian to reach a women's Grand Slam singles final, and the only player to have beaten Graf in the 1988 season. Two defeats to Sabatini during the year did not faze Graf though, who earlier on in the tournament had dismissed the threat of her doubles partner, stating that Navratilova was still the player to beat. At the start of the 1988 US Open final, Graf's verdict looked spot-on.

Graf took the opening set 6-3, and was now just one set away from her place in history. Yet Graf's game began to wobble, Sabatini seemingly thriving as the enormity of the possible achievement began to get to the German. Sabatini took the set, only one of two that Graf would lose in the 1988 Grand Slam campaign. All of a sudden, the Argentinian looked like pooping the party.

Unfortunately for Sabatini, her suspect fitness let her down. "I knew she had to be nervous, but I just got too tired. I was trying, though," Sabatini later revealed, as Graf seized her moment. Losing just one game in the decider, Graf celebrated her Grand Slam by joining her family and coach in the players' box. Twenty-seven matches, just two sets dropped, Graf's journey from Australia to America via France and England, was now complete (with the bonus of a gold medal in Seoul still to come).

Sweden's Grand Slam

The men's seedings gradually worked to plan, as number one seed Ivan Lendl met second seed Mats Wilander in the final. The battle for the trophy was just a small part of the narrative; a win for Wilander would see him take over the world number one spot from Lendl, a position that had been his since September 1985. The showdown was eagerly anticipated throughout the two weeks, although neither would have things all their own way on reaching the final.

Wilander's main scare came in the second round, his five-set win over Kevin Curren a severe test of his fitness and mental strength, but once this test had been passed, things were a bit more comfortable for the Australian and French Open champion. His semi-final win over Darren Cahill saw him lose just ten games, whereas Lendl's last four clash with Agassi was much more demanding. Lendl had already survived a five set first round test against Amos Mansdorf, and after losing the first set to Agassi, the situation was looking shaky.

Lendl was visibly disturbed and annoyed by Agassi's constant grunting when striking the ball during rallies, and protested to umpire Richard Ings. "Some people don't realise how much tennis players rely on the sound of the ball. I like hearing what the other guy is doing with the ball," Lendl pointed out after he had recovered to win in four sets. It's interesting to note that grunting was creeping into the sport and causing consternation back in 1988. Perhaps tennis needed more people to complain during the birth of this craze and we wouldn't be in the position we are today.

The 1988 US Open final between Lendl and Wilander turned out to be an epic, 4 hours and 54 minutes of edge of the seat action (seven minutes longer than their 1987 final), "the clash of wills almost audible," in the words of The Times' Rex Bellamy. All seemed so easy for Wilander when he took the first set and raced into a 4-1 lead in the second, yet Lendl's resilience and never-say-die spirit rose to the surface as he reeled off the next five games to level the match.

The next two sets developed into a similar pattern. Wilander won the third set 6-3, and when the Swede was serving at 30-0 and 4-3 up in the fourth it looked a long way back for Lendl. Still Lendl refused to surrender though, and it says a lot for his mental fortitude that he managed to take the match into a fifth set, even though on the day his game was littered with unforced errors (a final total of 83; Wilander only had 36).

The fifth set was a miniature version of the match itself. Wilander broke Lendl's serve immediately, before Lendl struck back three games later to level at 2-2. The seventh game saw the last service break of the match, as Wilander, who had gone to the net throughout the final, exposed more errors in Lendl's passing shots to gain the upper hand. The final game summed everything up; Lendl had two break points, before Wilander composed himself to win his third major of the season on his second match point.

Sweden not only had their first men's US Open champion - Bjorn Borg had failed on nine occasions to win the title - but could also boast a Grand Slam of their own in 1988, albeit not on the same scale as Graf's admittedly. "I realise now why it was so hard for Borg to win here," declared the new world number one. "Because it's a tournament that I've never won, or a Swede has never won, and because I'm going to be number one, it's the biggest match I ever played. It meant so much".

Rather than signal the start of a period of domination for Wilander, 1988 in fact was as good as it got for the Swede. But what a high to experience. Three majors and the toppling of Ivan Lendl in an unforgettable year for both Wilander and Swedish tennis.

No comments:

Post a Comment