NEW YORK, NOV. 22 -- Steffi Graf is just 18 and has the sunny smile of a West German schoolgirl. But like the great champions, she's fierce. Like the greatest of them, she's hungry.
"I was thinking the other day how I would describe my year," Graf said. "I was falling asleep and thinking on this, and I thought I would describe it like a menu card. For appetizer, I had Key Biscayne and Boca Raton and Hilton Head. For main course, I had huge, tender French Open topped with Berlin and Rome. On the side, a little Wimbledon and U.S. Open, but I didn't use enough salt and pepper on both of them. As a dessert -- and I love desserts -- I first started with some Hamburg and some Zurich, and then I have the best dessert of all, here in New York. It's been a very tasty year."
Graf could pay for the order with her $1,063,785 in winnings for 1987, including the $125,000 first prize for defeating Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-4, in the final of the Virginia Slims Championships today at Madison Square Garden. Her rise to No. 1 has been sudden and convincing. Her record has been nothing short of remarkable.
She won 11 tournaments this year, compiled a streak of 45 consecutive victories and was 75-2 overall. Her only losses were at the hands of Martina Navratilova, the champion she unseated, in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
"You see, I'm not a good cook," she said, laughing.
She shrugged off a sluggish first set today to quickly wear down Sabatini, her doubles partner, whose path to the final had been longer and tougher and was taking its toll with each game.
By the end of the second set, Sabatini -- 17, sixth-ranked and rapidly improving -- was unable to keep running down Graf's powerful forehand. She did save four set points in winning a 16-point game to break Graf in the ninth game, but then serving at 4-5, 30-all, Sabatini double-faulted for one of her 17 in the match. Worse, at break point she babied a backhand volley with Graf stranded at the base line, and that was the shot that haunted Sabatini more than any other.
Graf sprinted toward the net and recovered in time to spank a forehand off Sabatini's racket. She had the point, the set and, from then on, the match. She knew it.
"After that, I feel I'm going to win," Graf said. "I felt good. I don't think she felt good."
That began a run of 10 straight games for Graf during which Sabatini won only 14 points. The third set consumed just 18 minutes, with Graf growing stronger and more confident until Sabatini briefly rallied. Pulling to 3-3 in the fourth set, Sabatini earned the cheers of the Garden crowd of 16,459, which helped set a total tournament record of 93,655. But it wasn't enough.
They've met 11 times and Graf has won each time, but seven of their matches have been competitive. Sabatini is getting better all the time.
Sabatini reached at least the semifinals in 11 of her 19 tournaments, and to face Graf here she had to beat Navratilova in the quarterfinals. She may not be quite as strong as Graf, but she serves and volleys better than Graf, and maybe everyone else. Sabatini never expected to advance so far in this event, but now nothing is beyond her expectations.
"I think any moment I can beat Steffi," Sabatini said. "I am improving little by little. I'm almost there."
That's food for thought.