Will Steffi Graf follow closely the US Open this year? We know what’s at stakes: Serena Williams, winner of the first three Grand Slam tournaments of the year, can achieve the first Grand Slam calendar since the one succeeded by Steffi Graf in 1988. If the American manages this feat, she will also have as many major trophies as the German on her fireplace (22). A few days before this possible masterstroke, a small set of comparisons seemed mandatory. A game of spot the differences between Graf 1988 and Williams 2015.
Domination on the tour: advantage Graf?
Just like Graf 27 years ago, Williams will land in New York after having experienced defeat only twice this season. But with twelve sets lost on the road of her four titles, including a small half at Roland Garros where she played with a runny nose, the Serena fortress hasn't always looked waterproof. In late May, before passing a few points away from a victory that would have sunk all thoughts of Grand Slam, the Belarusian Victoria Azarenka had quietly led the match 4-2 6/3. The kind of fears that the German didn't experienced in her time, since only Martina Navratilova succeeded in stealing her a set in the first three Grand Slam tournament, in the final of Wimbledon. Previously, in Paris, Natasha Zvereva wasn't even able to last more than half an hour! Exhausted 6/0 6/0, the Russian was even exempted from her speech at the awards ceremony, unique in a final at this level. We then say that only an accident or Apocalypse could have prevented her from winning… In New York, the famous Italian journalist Rino Tommasi even seriously proposed to go back to the formula of Challenge Round, and directly qualify Graf for the final, "Why should she wait two weeks to play her final?" More seriously, the only problem for her in this exceptional year was the Argentine Gabriela Sabatini, who dominated her twice, in Boca Raton in March and in Amelia Island in April, and who also stole her a set in the final of the US Open, the day of the last step... But the real danger might in fact have come from her German shepherd, that bit her after winning Wimbledon (!) and did it again when she returned plastered from the hospital. Fortunately, the bites were not serious.
Their place in history: Graf’s untouchable Golden Slam?
"It is amazing that two players so strong, so dominating, never managed to succeed the Grand Slam!" said a surprised Steffi Graf in 1988 about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, whose reign with two heads was then meeting an abrupt end. The great drama of these two champions, of whom Graf only accelerated the exit, was precisely that they had to share everything. They certainly magnified each other, but they also and especially stood on in the way of each other for 15 years, even if Martina Navratilova still managed to win four major titles in a row over two years in 1983-1984. A true-false Grand Slam of which Graf erased the memory four years later, becoming the third player after Maureen Connolly (1953) and Margaret Court (1970) to achieve the "authentic" Grand Slam. As if that wasn’t enough, the German added a medal to her prize list at the Seoul Olympics less than a month after New York. In 2015, which is not an Olympic year, the context is different for Williams. But it's been a long time since the greatest rivals of her career (his sister Venus, Hingis, Clijsters, Henin etc....) have left the ship. It doesn't change anything at the feat of still being the best at almost 34 years old, but if Graf had to overtake two tennis legends to reach the top in 1988, the Williams 2015 seems a little lonelier...
Precocity: advantage Graf!
The German managed, even before her twentieth birthday, what the other talents of the Open era have sometimes needed a decade to complete, her future husband Andre Agassi Graf for example... Graf was 19 years and two months old when she succeeded the Calendar Grand Slam, and it was five years after her first appearance at Roland Garros. Serena Williams has been on the tour for over 15 years and is therefore almost twice as old than Graf in 1988. Williams' Grand Slam would somehow be the twilight match of Graf's dawn. But who knows if the American is really at the very end of her career!
Pressure: Even worst for Williams?
"I did it and here I am free of the pressure," said a surprisingly sober Steffi Graf (no crying, no untimely joy explosion) after her victory in New York. And she explained this year at Roland Garros: "I didn’t have the objective of achieving the Grand Slam. But from Wimbledon, the media couldn't stop mentioning it. It peaked at Flushing Meadows. I was only 19 years old, I was literally exhausted. In the final, Sabatini gave me a hard time and the match was complicated. I was at the breaking point. At the end of the match, I had cramps..." Even if she was still overprotected by her father who was keeping her secluded and was sending her to bed at 9 p.m., Steffi could not escape this expectation that she herself described as "terrible". Before the tournament, Graf, who was then, it seems, more famous than the Chancellor Helmut Kohl in her country, had to pose for photographers with a Grand Slam jersey flocked to her name... Serena Williams, who refused to discuss the subject during Wimbledon, will probably have to boycott all the press conferences at the US Open if she really wants to avoid the subject. The American has perhaps no memories of 1988 but she knows that may experience the same thing... and worse! Williams has already warned us. "I don't need to achieve a Grand Slam to have succeeded my career." It's true. But if she does, she will be remembered at least until another player do the same... Which probably means a very long time.