LONDON -- It was the most anticipated encounter of the 1987 tennis season. Thirty-year-old Martina Navratilova, the game's most dominating player the last six years, and Steffi Graf, the 18-year-old who had not lost a match this year, in the Wimbledon final. It began with a backhand winner from Graf, but ended with her forehand error.
Navratilova's 7-5, 6-3 win was thoroughly of her own doing, with the help of net cords that seemed to reinforce the notion that she still reigns as queen of Wimbledon.
Graf surely will win here one day. Saturday wasn't the day because she lacked a change of pace. She nearly always plays in fourth gear and if that is not working she seldom downshifts, preferring to maintain the tempo.
Navratilova's plan was clearly to work her way to the net with an approach to Graf's backhand. It worked, although Graf occasionally replied with blistering passing shots. Navratilova was more aggressive and kept Graf under constant pressure to execute spectacular winners.
Graf's record against Navratilova was 3-5 before this match, but she had won in their last two meetings. That might have planted the idea in her mind that Navratilova would be the one to wilt under pressure. After all, Navratilova was trying for a record six Wimbledons in a row and a record-tying eighth singles title overall at the All England.
Graf's method of attack was to serve wide on either side to open the court for her big weapon, a moderately topped but powerfully struck forehand. This worked extremely well in the semifinals against Pam Shriver, but there was an important difference in playing Navratilova: Shriver has only a right-handed sliced backhand and Navratilova is left-handed. Navratilova simply took those balls to her forehands early and hit them back so quickly that Graf seldom had time to measure her own forehand.
On the return of serve, Graf wanted to go for winners too often. Navratilova never hesitated in following her serve to the net, but Graf too often relied on a hit-or-miss reply. When Navratilova returned serve she was undoubtedly surprised that Graf did not come in as often as she had against Shriver.
Navratilova's foot speed also seemed to intimidate Graf. The champion is perceptibly faster around the court than any other woman, and Graf may have subconsciously felt an uncommon urgency on her ground strokes. The rush produced heart-stopping passing shots but also errors.
Perhaps the best indication that Graf was never in control was that she reached only one break point on Navratilova's serve all day. She held off six set points in the first set, but Graf never had the edge -- in points or in her head.
The chances are very good they will meet again in the U.S. Open final in September. If Graf can replace her metronomic pace with a few more intentional lulls, she may turn the result around. To Navratilova goes well deserved applause for giving her best when it counted most; for her very first tournament victory in 1987 after eight finals appearances.