I am not a huge fan of Women’s tennis. Not because I consider them to be a “weaker sex” to play tennis or it isn’t as much a power game as it is to watch men’s. But because, ever since I had been watching, it was dominated always by one person at a time, who used to win all championships, regardless. When I started watching tennis in early eighties, while men’s game was being led by Borg, Connors, McEnroe and Lendl, the women’s was being ruled by just Martina Navratilova. Though Chris Evert was there to challenge her, it was no challenge. Until Navratilova aged, towards the second half of eighties, and Steffi Graf took over her place.
Then it was Graf’s turn. So much so, her Golden grand slam in the year 1988 was such a walkover, that the competition was nowhere near her and it was so easy to predict her wins. Yes there was a Gabriela Sabatini, who was more of a poster girl than a challenger, or an Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who could challenge her in French Open, but it turned out to be boring, compared to watching an Edberg vs Becker match or a Lendl vs Wilander match that time. This changed somewhat in 1990, the year in which Graf was not the winner of Wimbledon. But more interesting than her defeat in Wimbledon semis that year, was the emergence of another youngster. The 16 year old from former Yugoslavia, Monica Seles who won the French Open that year beating her.
Seles, was the one who looked to consistently beat Graf or challenge her in all turfs than any other player. And so she did in her winning spree in 1991, by taking the Australian Open that year and successfully defending French Open again, by beating Arantxa Sanchez. She had replaced Graf as the No:1 player, by March that year. She had to miss Wimbledon due to an injury, but then came back to win the US Open that year to win three of the big four. By now she turned out to be the only one who could give Graf a run for her money, and those supporters of Graf, who hated her, started complaining about her “grunts” on field and started mocking her.
1992, was her year when she won, once again all the big three tournaments, and reached the final of Wimbledon too, but played in a “mute mode” due to the complaints by Steffi fans! She lost in the final though, perhaps not able to get to her best without the “grunts”! Her two-handed returns and slices were a joy to watch as she kept winning the next two slams as well, the US Open and the Australian Open in 1993. However in April that year, while playing a tournament in Hamburg, a Steffi Graf fan named Gunter Parche ran from the middle of the crowd and stabbed her from behind, on her shoulder, during a break between the games. Though it took only a few weeks to heal the physical injury, the incident affected her so badly, she never returned until two years later, and that practically ended her run of wins.
When she returned in 1995, she was overweight and not anywhere near her best. Though some of her fans like me were hopeful of her reaching her peak again, as she was still quite young that time. Especially after she won the Australian Open in 1996, though that turned out to be her last big win in Slams. She later took a bronze medal in Olympics in 2000 and retired from tennis in 2008.
Who knows what could have happened and where she could have reached in the history of tennis, had that tragic incident not cut short her magnificent run and challenge against Steffi? No doubt Steffi herself was a great champion and an all time legend in tennis, but until they both had fought out through 1993 till their retirement, without that hiatus that Seles took, we couldn’t say clearly, who was a better player.
My heart says, Seles would have been, had it happened so. But for making the women’s tennis far more interesting for me to watch at least, I will always remember her as my most favourite women’s tennis player of all time.
(Image courtesy : ubitennis)