The West German met the American in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Wednesday and, sure enough, it was a match for the ages.
Emotions exploded, fickle momentum kept changing sides, and spectacular shot countered spectacular shot as the contestants grappled through three tiebreakers.
With the struggle approaching the three-hour mark, spectators jammed the aisles, holding their breath and craning their necks to get a better view of the dramatic, climactic points.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played such a close match,” said the winner.
“I don’t think I’ve ever put in such an effort and lost in my life,” said the loser.
This was the classic confrontation everyone had expected the quarterfinals of the 1985 U.S. Open to produce.
There was only one deviation from the original story line.
The players wore dresses.
Forget John McEnroe and Boris Becker. The U.S. Open had to, once Joakim Nystrom did a rewrite on the marquee billing.
The match of this year’s U.S. Open apparently will have been played in the women’s division, where West Germany’s Steffi Graf staggered past Pam Shriver in three momentous sets, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6.
In 2 hours 46 minutes of tennis that tested will, skill and stamina, tournament records fell--if the players didn’t.
Never before in U.S. Open history had a women’s match produced tiebreakers in all three sets. In total games, it was the longest women’s match played here since the adoption of the tiebreaker system in 1970.
Twice before at the Open, women have battled for 38 games--Lele Forood vs. Carrie Meyer in 1978, and Lisa Bonder vs. Barbara Potter in 1983. Wednesday, Graf and Shriver played the maximum number allowed--39.
True, the women’s tennis at Flushing Meadow this year had been b - o - r - i - n - g through the first eight days. But in one titanic duel in the sun, Shriver, the tall net-rusher, and Graf, the miniature ground stroke machine, made up for all the straight-set blowouts.
“It was one of the most unbelievable matches that I’ve been a part of,” Shriver said. “My effort couldn’t have been more--and it was just about two points too less.”
The scorecard will show that Shriver, ranked third in the world and seeded fourth in this tournament, had victory cupped in her hands more than once. She led, 4-1, in the third set, served for the match at 5-3 and was ahead, 4-3, in the final tiebreaker.
Each time, Shriver let victory slip through her fingers.
But Shriver would not concede that the dripping tension and gripping drama got the best of her.
Choke? Shriver insisted there wasn’t time to choke.
“I know it sounds silly, but the match was such an unbelievable struggle that there honestly wasn’t that much time to get nervous,” she said.
Fatigue, however, was another matter.
“At the end, I think Pam was a little bit angry and tired,” Graf said.
Shriver didn’t argue.
“That’s what will happen when you’re serving and volleying and diving around for passing shots,” she said. “I mean, some of the points were so violent for me that I guess I got a little jaded toward the end. Actually, my legs have felt better.
“On my service games, I just wanted to hit aces. I didn’t want her to get one ball back. Then, I started not serving as well.
“I didn’t feel very well from 4-1 on.”
This match was draining even to watch. Each set held more suspense than all of the previous four rounds of women’s competition combined.
Set No. 1: At 5-5, Graf broke Shriver and prepared to serve for the set at 6-5. Graf’s first delivery, however, was drilled by Shriver and headed back toward the baseline. Graf thought the ball was long. The linesman called it good. Graf protested and kicked the ball in disgust, drawing a code-violation warning.
Graf fell behind, 0-40, then rallied and forced deuce. Five deuce points later, Graf netted a backhand from the baseline to bring on the first tiebreaker.
In the tiebreaker, Graf fell back again at 0-3--and came back again to assume a 6-4 advantage. On her third set point, Graf hit a deep forehand that may or may not have caught the base line. The linesman called it good. Shriver swatted the ball into the net.
Graf won the tiebreaker, 7-4.
Set No. 2: Shriver broke Graf’s second serve and, while gritting her teeth, pumping her fist and falling into the net in pursuit of half-volleys, built leads of 4-2 and 5-3. But in the 10th game, Graf hit three sensational passing shots, the third breaking service and forging a 5-5 tie.
Graf took a 6-5 edge when Shriver mis-hit an overhead. Shriver held her ground as she held her next serve, shouting “C’mon!” as she walked off the court even at 6-6.
The second tiebreaker was the flip side of the first--Graf taking a 3-1 lead, then falling behind at 6-4. Shriver then sneaked in a second serve, wide to Graf’s forehand. Pulled off the court, all Graf could do was curl her return into the net.
Shriver won the tiebreaker, 7-4.
Set No. 3: Another early service break for Shriver, helped her build a 4-1 lead. Graf held to pull to within 4-2 and then broke Shriver when Shriver’s forehand at 30-40 found only net.
Shriver, however, broke back and could have served out the match at 5-3. But again, Graf scrambled back with passing shots, breaking Shriver again at 15.
Service was held for the next three games, creating the need for the historic third tiebreaker. At 4-4 and serving, Shriver netted a lunging volley that signaled, finally, the end.
Graf took her turn at the service line and set up match point with a service winner. Moments later, Shriver sailed a backhand long and a Grandstand Court crowd of more than 6,000 exhaled at last.
Three tiebreakers, all decided by 7-4 margins, two won by Graf. Shriver buried her face in a towel at courtside, emptying the emotions that had been pent up for three hours, and Graf left the court as cameras clicked away. For the first time all afternoon, Graf smiled.
“I’m really happy now,” Graf said at her press conference. “But I don’t think I really know that I won and am in the semis. It’s going to take a while to know I’m in the semis.”
And just who will Graf face in the semifinals?
Steffi, can you say Martina Navratilova ? Can you say good luck . . . and goodby ?
Earlier Wednesday, Navratilova blitzed Zina Garrison, the world’s sixth-ranked player, 6-2, 6-3. The execution lasted 56 minutes--approximately the length of one of Graf’s sets with Shriver.
Graf may be West Germany’s female answer to Boris Becker, a precocious 16-year-old who’s already ranked No. 11 in the world. Ted Tinling has selected Graf and Argentina’s Gabriela Sabatini as the stars of women’s tennis, circa 1990.
But here in 1985, Graf must face a monumental task against Navratilova. She completed a monumental task just to get here.
“I’m not ready to beat her at this moment,” Graf admitted. “I have to work on my service and backhand. It is going to take me a good while . . . Maybe if she breaks a leg or something.”
Said Shriver, biting back the frustration over again failing to set up a semifinal meeting with her doubles partner: “I can’t see her (Graf), in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, winning--although if she did it, it would make me look pretty darn good.
“Martina will be able to pick apart her serve a lot better than I did. She’ll put an awful lot of pressure on Steffi’s serve.”
And that’s not all of it. Graf’s biggest obstacle, in Shriver’s estimation?
“If she recovers from this match,” Shriver said.