Monday, 19 May 2014

1988 French Open Tennis

Roland Garros had been hosting the French Open championships for 60 years when the second Grand Slam event of the 1988 season began in Paris. It would be a tournament which saw the Grand Slam dream staying alive for two players, former greats falling by the wayside, a teenage invasion of the women's singles, French hopes raised and then dashed at the last, and a women's final that set records, yet one which Natasha Zvereva would probably prefer to forget.

Brits abroad

For the three British women involved, their experience at Roland Garros was short but not particularly sweet. Clare Wood and Monique Javer both lost in straight sets in the opening round, Javer suffering the ignominy of a double bagel (she would be in good company come the end of the women's event). Javer, a Californian representing Britain, at least offered up a unique reason for her loss: "I practised for five hours a day, so I might have over-prepared".

The only British woman to make the second round was Jo Durie, and her participation had only been secured once Japan's Etsuko Inoue withdrew from the tournament. Durie's 7-6 6-2 win over American Terry Phelps was in fact her first win in Paris since she had reached the semi-finals of the 1983 tournament. "After four years, it was getting to the point where I wondered if I'd ever win a match in Paris again," Durie said, although her 6-1 6-4 loss to Elna Reinach in the next round quashed any signs of hope.

It was again left to Jeremy Bates to fly the flag for Britain. A four-set win over 17-year-old Todd Woodbridge set up a second round match with Italian Francesco Cancellotti, a player ranked 44 places below Bates, but a man comfortable on clay. At 2-4 down in the deciding set, the writing seemed on the wall for Bates, yet in a sterling comeback, he refused to give up, eventually taking the set 7-5 in a gruelling contest lasting 3 hours 26 minutes.

The watching Davis Cup captain was certainly impressed, Warren Jacques commenting "We've all seen Jeremy let other opportunities slip. This time he showed true grit. It's what I've been waiting to see". Bates may have been easily beaten by Magnus Gustafsson, but he had at least won a couple of matches, and was the first British man to reach the third round since John Lloyd in 1982. Yes, you had to claim any little victories you could as a British tennis follower during my childhood.

Return of the Mac

From 1986 onwards, John McEnroe had appeared sporadically on tour, his self-imposed exile from the sport and chronic back injuries limiting his chances of adding to his seven Grand Slam singles titles. But in 1988 he was back at Roland Garros, although he was understandably a little apprehensive about his chances. "I've not set my sights too high here," stated McEnroe. "But I can't win if I don't enter and this is the one big tournament I haven't won".

A straight sets win over Alexander Volkov set McEnroe on his way - or should that be MacEnroe as his name was displayed on the scoreboard - yet the American joked that he had been so bad that he could have been defaulted by the umpire. McEnroe's unusually relaxed demeanour even extended to sharing a moment with a linesman who had inadvertently called a foot fault before McEnroe had thrown the ball into the air. "Thanks for calling it before I hit it. You woke me up," McEnroe later said to the relieved line judge.

McEnroe's third round opponent was the 16-year-old Michael Chang, a man, or should that be boy, who admitted to fantasising about playing against McEnroe from a very young age. "Hopefully he'll be intimidated by my reputation," McEnroe informed the media, before promptly disposing of the young hopeful 6-0 6-3 6-1. Chang had commented pre-match that "If he kicks my butt, I'll learn from it". Chang must have been a fast learner, judging by his efforts a year later.

The easy win set up a mouth watering last sixteen clash with McEnroe's old foe Ivan Lendl. In a match heavily disrupted by rain, McEnroe played some sublime tennis to take the first set 7-6, before a moment of controversy levelled matters. Leading 6-3 in the tie-break, Lendl hit a shot that looked out, but the decision went the way of the world number one, much to the disgust of McEnroe and the crowd.

Umpire Richard Kaufman had to summon assistant referee Charles Guillemot on to the court to calm McEnroe down and to control the crowd, who were fully behind the cause of the American. Eventually play resumed, although at 9.23pm the match was suspended, an increasingly tetchy McEnroe adamant that conditions were so dark that they needed "balls that glow in the dark".

Lendl closed out the match the following morning, winning the last two sets 6-4 6-4, but McEnroe had been mightily impressive for a man feeling his way back into world class tennis on a surface that was not his preferred choice. "Hopefully I'll be playing even better by Wimbledon," a departing McEnroe said. It didn't quite work out like that, though it was good to have McEnroe back on the tennis landscape.

The kids are all right

The women's game was fast becoming the teenagers' tournament. A glance at the age range of the quarter-finalists emphasises this: Steffi Graf (18), Bettina Fulco (19), Gabriela Sabatini (18), Helen Kelesi (18), Nicole Provis (18), Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (16), Natasha Zvereva (17), and the ancient Helena Sukova (23). Graf, who had been the youngest winner of the title a year before, would be the oldest semi-finalist in the 1988 French Open.

The observant reader may well have spotted an abnormality with regards to the last eight: the absence of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. For the first time since 1981, there would be a Grand Slam singles final that did not have either player involved, and you had to go back to 1970 for a quarter-final that did not feature either of them. The two stalwarts of the game were beginning to be edged out by the younger guns.

Navratilova had been bullish during the championships, indicating that she had lost none of her confidence. "I consider I'm the best player on the circuit. I'm getting to the point where I can't see myself lose," she trumpeted, and indeed her early form was good. But there was trouble ahead in the shape of Natasha Zvereva, as a complacent Navratilova paid the price for her brashness.

"I just didn't take her seriously enough," admitted Navratilova after her 6-3 7-6 defeat to Zvereva, an opponent she had previously beaten twice and had only lost 7 games to. Navratilova's cockiness was perhaps excusable, yet Zvereva was a dangerous talent, after all she had won the 1987 girls French Open, Wimbledon and US Open titles. Despite declaring that she was not finished and would be back, Navratilova now faced a tough slog to regain her glory days.

Evert's career was naturally drawing to an end - her retirement only a year away - and the 1988 French Open was another sign that her time was almost up. A heel injury had forced her to withdraw from the recent Italian Open, and a recurrence of her bursitis condition in Paris was not what the doctor ordered. The French tournament officials pushed Evert's third round match with Sanchez Vicario back a couple of days to assist her recovery, but even with injections, Evert was up against it. Her 6-1 7-6 loss to an opponent more than half her age was sadly inevitable.

Svensson stuns Lendl

With the surface at Roland Garros not to the liking of the faster court specialists in Edberg, Cash and Becker, all looked set for a repeat of the 1984, 1985 and 1987 French Open finals between Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl. Wilander did not have things all his own way, however, coming from 5-2 down in a deciding set of his third round match against Slobodan Zivojinovic to win 7-5, in a narrow escape. Lendl would not be as fortunate though.

Lendl had won the Italian Open prior to Paris, and had not lost on clay for over 12 months, so his subsequent quarter-final defeat to Sweden's Jonas Svensson was a major surprise. In fact it fully deserved the description in The Times as "one of the most startling results in the recent history of the French championships".

Lendl's only losses in his previous 32 French Open matches had been to Wilander, and now the path looked clear for the Swede to reclaim the title. In fairness, there were mitigating circumstances behind Lendl's demise, a chest injury greatly restricting his movement and requiring an ice spray on every change over. But Lendl did not use his injury as an excuse, giving full credit to Svensson, whose position as Sweden's number six only went to show just how strong a nation they were.

"Slowly but surely I knew I was gone. In the end I was hoping for a miracle. Perhaps he would be injured, or the ice spray would heal me," said Lendl after his exit. The miracle did not arrive though, and Lendl had to tend to his wounds and try and get himself ready for Wimbledon a little over a fortnight later.

Leconte thrills a nation

When 1983 champion Yannick Noah exited at the fourth round stage to Emilio Sanchez (Arantxa's brother), French hopes rested on the shoulders of the 11th seed Henri Leconte. The crowd pleaser was certainly giving home fans value for money, his first two matches going the distance, as Leconte defeated Australian qualifier Simon Youl and Bruno Oresar on his way to another marathon against Boris Becker in the fourth round.

Rain would again interrupt play, with Leconte finally winning seven hours after the start, in a match that saw nearly four hours of gripping drama. "The tennis was rich, like a full-bodied red wine," wrote the Daily Express' Malcolm Folley, as the pendulum swung one way and the other, Becker taking the first set, before Leconte took the next two, as the angry German lost is cool and was warned for verbally abusing a line judge.

Becker levelled the match which at times was played in a sandstorm due to the blustery conditions on the centre court. Leconte had never lost a five-set match in the French Open though, and maintained his proud record by breaking Becker in the seventh game, and although he threatened to lose his nerve in the final game - losing the first two points and then double faulting on match point - Leconte let out a yell of delight as he got over the line, leaping over the net to embrace Becker.

Inevitably the media references to musketeers and D'Artagnan were widespread after Leconte's fine win and during his subsequent passage to the final, completed with straight forward wins over Andrei Chesnokov and Lendl's conqueror Svensson. Leconte's adventurous approach to the game certainly fitted in with these titles, as the swashbuckling and charming Frenchman now stood one match away from winning a first Grand Slam singles title, and as ever, giving the public what they wanted.

Graf dominance

Graf had reacted strongly to Navratilova's claims that she was still the best player in the world: "She can say what she wants. If I play my best, she'd better be careful". Fighting talk from the young German, although to say she had the game to back it up was a slight understatement. The Australian Open champion, and the recent winner of the West German Open on clay, Graf's route to the final left a trail of destruction that was frightening.

A 6-0 6-4 first round win against Natalie Guerree became so mundane for the German that she began to experiment with drop shots from the baseline and visits to the net. "I shouldn't have done that," admitted Graf later, "I tried too much". The press were left in no doubt that this would not be happening again. From that point, Graf obliterated anyone else in her path: Ronni Reis 6-1 6-0; Susan Sloan 6-0 6-1; Nathalie Tauziat 6-1 6-3; Bettina Fulco 6-0 6-1. Many were left in shock and awe at the ease of Graf's journey to the semi-finals.

Before meeting Sabatini in the last four, Graf had played five matches, losing just 11 games on the way, and playing a total time of only 3 hours 41 minutes. Folley calculated that Graf's earnings for the tournament were working out at £156 a minute, and it was an often repeated statement that Graf was spending a lot longer in the press room than on court.

Sabatini at least pushed Graf a little, losing 6-3 7-6. We didn't know it at the time, but the Argentinian had just taken the last games off of Graf in the tournament, and could at least boast to having taken 45% of games that the German had conceded in Paris. Graf had actually led 5-3 in the second set, "before displaying a familiar tendency to pause on the brink of success," as The Times put it. Zvereva was about to discover that Graf would not always be so charitable.

Agassi arrives

The search for an American winner of the men's singles would go on for another year, but the emergence of a fresh talent on the scene in Paris gave hope for the future. Andre Agassi announced himself on the international stage with a run to the semi-finals, and along the way made a lot of fans with his superb tennis and charismatic nature.

"Agassi is the tonic American tennis needs. He smiles easily, enjoys his tennis, and his opponent's, and flings himself into his shots," wrote The Times' Rex Bellamy, who was not the only journalist wowed by the new kid on the block. Dressed in cut down denim shorts and with his shoulder-length streaked hair, 18-year-old Agassi was a breath of fresh air, the Daily Mirror reporting how his "extravagant shot-making and brilliant movement" had inspired his quarter final win over Perez Roldan. After the match, Agassi blew kisses to the crowd, bowed, and shook hands with courtside spectators, further ingratiating himself into the hearts of the watching public.

His semi-final against Mats Wilander highlighted just how good Agassi was, although eventually he ran out of steam losing the final set decider 6-0, during a match in which he demonstrated his cheeky persona further by pretending to give money to a linesman after a call in his favour and standing under an umbrella during a spell of drizzle as Wilander was about to serve.

Above all a star had been born, and Wilander, amongst many, knew it. "He's a hell of a player," Wilander said in gushing praise. "He surprised me. I didn't think he was this good. I've never played anybody who hits the ball like that. He's going to be in the top 10 for the next five to ten years".

Wilander was accurate, as he had needed to be in that semi-final. Agassi was here to stay and although he would not be the man to break America's French Open drought which stretched back to 1955, Nigel Clarke's assertion in the Daily Mirror that Agassi "is the most exciting young tennis star in the world" was not hyperbole.

Zvereva's pain

Natasha Zvereva proved that her win over Navratilova was no fluke, defeating Sukova and Australian Nicole Provis in the next two rounds, although the semi-final win was a little fraught, Zvereva squandering two match points in the second set, and then having to save one in the decider as she had to fight off stomach cramps at the same time. Zvereva had become the first Soviet to reach a Grand Slam final since 1974, swelling the coffers of the Soviet Tennis Federation by £75,000, the Minsk-born player given a whopping £10 a day expenses during her stay in Paris.

Such was the excitement back home that the final would be shown live on Soviet television, but it soon became apparent that this Glasnost policy should have seen the output given a X-rating. Zvereva was simply blown away by Graf, in a display of ruthlessness from the German, as she secured the second leg of her 1988 Grand Slam/Golden Slam.

The statistics of that final do not make happy reading; the first double bagel in a Grand Slam final since the 1911 Wimbledon women's final; just 32 minutes of playing time, split into two periods of 9 and 23 minutes due to a rain break (the official time given on the scoresheet was 34 minutes, but this was being generous to Zvereva); and most damning of all, Graf conceded just 13 points in the whole match, as a final that many had hoped would be a real examination for the German turned into uncomfortable viewing.

Bellamy had written in his final preview that Zvereva was not expected to win more than 4 or 5 games, and that she would have to cope with the pressure of her first Grand Slam final and the intimidation of Graf. Unfortunately, the words in his match report reflected Zvereva's plight: "The girl from Minsk, intimidated by Graf and the occasion, was reduced to lolloping, lunging helplessness and public shame. She was overawed and overpowered".

There should have been no shame in losing so comprehensively to Graf, but of course there was. Zvereva never did reach a women's Grand Slam singles final again in her career, and although she had a fine doubles record, mention the name now and many tennis fans will immediately think of Saturday June 4, 1988. Which is a shame, as she played her full part in the 1988 French Open tournament, and she would not be alone in suffering at the hands of Graf.

Wilander gatecrashes the party

The men's final was not quite as one-sided as the Graf-Zvereva match, but for the French nation it would provide the dampest of damp squibs. Wilander's straight sets win in an hour and 52 minutes was the quickest French Open final since 1980, as like Graf, Wilander took the title to complete one half of a potential Grand Slam.

It could have been so different had Leconte successfully served out the opening set at 5-4. But Wilander went on a run of six consecutive games, losing just eight points, as Leconte's challenge disintegrated. No matter how hard the 16,500 crowd tried, the frailties in Leconte's game as well as the solidity of Wilander meant that any hope of the Frenchman staging a dramatic fightback faded fast. At 0-5 down in the last set, Leconte did manage to save a couple of match points, yet minutes later Wilander had taken his third French Open title with a comfortable 7-5 6-2 6-1 win.

"It's too optimistic to talk about the Grand Slam," Wilander responded as the assembled media naturally began to wonder if Rod Laver's 1969 achievement could be matched. "There is a chance, but it's still a dream. Winning at Wimbledon is a completely different story to winning here".

And so it would prove. But for now Wilander could saviour his title win at Roland Garros and a move back to world number two. His form may have been a little shaky coming into the tournament, but Wilander was making sure he peaked at the right time, as his marvellous 1988 continued.

1 comment:

  1. Another great read. I've forgotten so many of these players- Miss Javer being a good example.