The game of tennis gives every player a chance to excel with his or her tailor-made skills by allowing the players to play on a variety of surfaces. Fortunate are those who are able to hone their game to such an extent that they become adaptable enough to play under any conditions. And it does not get bigger than when two such all-court players who are equally good in all aspects end up meeting in a mega event such as a Grand Slam final. More importantly, if those two players turn out to be the top-ranked individuals in either the WTA or ATP rankings, it would be one contest which no tennis fans would want to miss.
One such enthralling contest took place on the clay courts of Roland Garros on the 6 June 1992 between arguably two of the greatest ladies ever to have played the game. Interestingly, both Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, who played that memorable final on that Saturday, were chasing their third French open crown, the only difference being that a victory for the southpaw would have given her achieve a hat-trick of titles, having won the trophy the previous two years. On the other hand, for the then World No. 2 Graf, the motivation was a bit on the lower side. The German’s last victory here came in 1988 as a part of her Golden Grand slam collection and thereafter she had her own hat-trick denied in the following year by Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain.
So a lot was at stake for both the players as they took the court on the eventful afternoon of the first Saturday of June ’92. It was a match between the former world No. 1 and the reigning world No. 1; the Yugoslav had displaced Steffi Graf the previous year (1991) from the top spot in the WTA rankings. This was their third meeting at Roland Garros, the first of which took place in the year 1989 when the German defeated the 16-year-old Seles in the semifinals. The following year saw the exact opposite as the teenage wonder returned the favour by outclassing Steffi in the final, winning her first ever French Open title.
Though there was very little to choose between the two before the start of the match, considering their accomplishments at the Majors – the then defending champion was believed to have a slight edge over her opponent. The Yugoslav had in her possession superior groundstrokes and better baseline defense. In fact, Chris Evert had once stated that she had never seen anyone hit the ball harder than Seles. The fleet-footed Steffi Graf, on the other hand, had one of the best forehands in the business but her one-handed backhand was considered to be her Achilles’ heel. In fact she quite often played the slice backhand rather than hitting through with the shot. Here’s a blow-by-blow account of that memorable encounter between these two all-time greats:
Having won her previous four straight Grand Slam finals with the lone exception of 1991 Wimbledon, which she did not contest, Seles began the match full of confidence. Targeting the weaker backhand wing of her opponent, Seles put Graf on the back foot right from the word go. Unable to handle the powerful double-handed groundstrokes of the teenager, the 22-year old former champion made more errors than usual as she ended up losing 11 of the first 12 points played. The Yugoslav, who used to play with two hands off both wings, soon found herself serving for the set at 5-1. A small lapse of concentration from the grunting left-hander brought the German back into the set as she broke the former to take only her second game of the set. But very soon, the second best player in the world was brought to earth as the 19-year old broke her back to win the set 6-2. While the error column was on the rise for Steffi, the “winners” column continued to increase for the Yugoslav, pretty much summing up the opening set.
When it looked as though the match was nearing a tame end, the then eleven-time Grand Slam holder brought her experience into count, making many changes to her game. She became all the more aggressive and ensured that she didn’t drop her serve first. For the first time in the match, her forehand began to come to her aid as she started dominating the rallies with thumping winners from the baseline. Steffi got the much-needed break in the second set and took the lead at 3-2 only to lose her serve in the very next game which tied the set at three games apiece. However, the German broke Seles’ serve once again to take a 4-3 lead. The next game witnessed all sorts of drama as Steffi was looking down the barrel with three break points against her name. But her forehand produced winners at the right time which bailed her out of the predicament as she held serve for a 5-3 lead. After that she broke Seles’s serve one more time with a forehand winner, taking the second set 6-3.
With the match tied at one set apiece, both the ladies went for the kill in the third and final set. The unrelenting ladies were able to hold on to their opening games which were stocked with gruelling rallies. Though the momentum was clearly in Graf’s favour having won the previous set, the southpaw came back strongly, putting severe pressure on her opponent’s serve. Helped by a few magical returns, she broke her adversary quite early and also went on to hold her next serve. The then World No. 1 seemed to have found her rhythm at the correct time as she quickly raced to a 5-3 lead, leaving the winner of the Golden Grand Slam to serve to stay in the match. That was the service game where Steffi fought not one but four championship points in order to stay in the match. She produced some spectacular winners at the most needed hour to remain in the match at 4-5.
The disappointed Seles, after failing to capitalise on four championship points, lost her own serve which levelled the match at five games all. In what seemed to be a poor advertisement for the game, both the ladies were making too many errors which took the match nowhere. Finally, when the scores were tied at eight-all, Seles was able to produce a backhand winner which gave her the much needed break as she took position to serve for the championship for the third year in a row. When Seles was serving with two championship points, the mentally tough Steffi produced a brilliant point to bring it down to one. However, Lady Luck finally eluded the German as her forehand found the net eventually, leaving the defending champion to lift the trophy for the third straight time after a two hour 43 minute marathon which was quite unusual for women’s tennis. This victory of Seles over Graf, with the score line of 6-2, 3-6, 10-8, would also be the former’s last success on the clay courts of Roland Garros.
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The following year, a deranged Graf fan stabbed the great southpaw during the course of a match, and after that horrific incident Seles was never able to regain her lost touch despite returning to competitive tennis following a two year long lay-off. However, that final where she prevailed over Steffi in three sets will forever remain as one of the best matches to have ever been played in any Grand Slam tournament, leave alone Roland Garros.