Nine months later, Steffi Graf had match point four. At the U.S. Open last fall, when she had Martina Navratilova squarely in her sights, the old champion reacted with three steely-eyed winners. Not yet, she was telling Graf, you aren't a champion just yet.
Saturday, though, after two hours of gripping tennis, Navratilova slipped a tiny step off her pedestal. On this fateful match point, with 17,000 people in Roland Garros Stadium holding their breath, she double faulted. For a moment, Graf didn't move, stunned. She had just become the youngest female French Open champion in history.
Graf, 17, won Saturday, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6, in a match that twisted and turned much like the swirling winds that made conditions tough all afternoon. It was her 39th straight victory, dating back to a November loss to Navratilova in the Virginia Slims Championships.
Navratilova's double fault was an unlikely and sad ending to a match filled with winners and gutsy comeback tennis, one that proved Graf is truly a champion on the rise while also making it clear that Navratilova is a long way from being ready to step aside.
Although the swirling winds made play difficult, they played briskly and aggressively from the start. Graf broke first, at 3-2 in the first set, but Navratilova broke right back. At 4-all, Graf saved a break point, won the game and then shocked everyone by breaking at love for the set. But she still had a long way to go. Navratilova went up a break, but let Graf break back to 4-4. Aggressive as ever, Navratilova jumped ahead, 5-4.
She clenched her fists going to the chair. She stormed out a moment later and held at love for the set.
They had played 69 minutes. The match was only beginning.
With Graf hanging on for dear life, they reached 2-all. Navratilova broke through. But Graf came right back .
Graf went down, 5-3, when Navratilova broke her again, then held quickly. Graf had been this way before. She trailed Gabriela Sabatini, 5-3, in the final set in the semifinals before coming back.
"I really wanted to end it on the 5-3 game," Navratilova said. "I thought I had her going a little. But she played a very strong game there. Still, I'm serving for the match."
At 15-all, though, fate and the crowd and the wind intervened. Preparing to second serve, Navratilova noticed some photographers moving, getting into position for a possible match point. She pulled back. She walked up to the line again, pulled her racket back and, from the crowd, came several yells. "Come on!" Navratilova yelled, exasperated.
She went to serve again. Double fault. "The crowd probably did affect that one," Navratilova said. The next one, came on the next point. "I was just going for that one," she said, "and I missed." The two double faults made it 15-40.
Navratilova saved one of the break points. But on the second one, Graf pounded a forehand return and Navratilova's lunging forehand volley sailed long. It was 5-5.
They proceeded routinely to 6-all. There, Navratilova had another break point. She attacked again and when Graf floated a backhand, it looked like Navratilova would serve for the match. But again, fate and the wind came into play. A bit of clay dust blew towards Navratilova and her backhand volley hit the tape.
That was her last chance. Graf hit a beautiful backhand lob and when Navratilova missed a forehand seconds later, Graf led, 7-6.
At 30-all, Navratilova followed her serve in. Graf's return was low again and Navratilova lunged for it. Not good enough, she couldn't lift it over the net. As soon as the ball left her racket, Navratilova cried, "Oh, no!"
Match point. Navratilova went for a big first serve and missed. She went back, paused and heard someone cry, "Allez, Martina!" This time she stepped back and gathered herself. It didn't matter. The serve was an inch deep. It was over.
"I never expected to win a Grand Slam this soon," said Graf, who will be 18 next Sunday. "I don't think it's hit me yet that I've done it. Martina is still the number one player, but today I took a step, a big step closer. I'm closer now than ever before."