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Graf Defeats Evert, Gains No. 1 Ranking

August 17, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

Steffi Graf, in her quest to attain the No. 1 ranking in women's tennis, never vowed to follow Martina Navratilova to the end of the earth.

The odd thing is--on a day when Graf finally broke up the Navratilova-Chris Evert stranglehold on No. 1--she didn't even have to knock off the reigning champion.

So, it came down to the past champion trading ground strokes with the future champion, trying to stave off the inevitable. For Graf, the future became the present, just 1 hour 21 minutes after taking the court, as she defeated Evert, 6-3, 6-4, to win the $250,000 Virginia Slims of Los Angeles on Sunday.

"I can't stop smiling," said Graf, who turned 18 in June. "It feels great. We were talking about it yesterday with my father after Chris won, about the chances if I win today, if I would be No. 1 or not.

"He said, 'No, it's not possible.' So after I won today, I went to my father and he said, 'You're No. 1 now.' I was very surprised.

So, today, when the Women's International Tennis Assn. computer spits out the new numbers, Graf becomes the best female tennis player in the world. More notable is that Graf is the first player other than Navratilova or Evert to hold the top spot since 1980. Tracy Austin was No. 1 at two different times, in April and July, of that year.

Now, Steffi, after all those years of Martina and Chris, how long can you hold on to No. 1?

"I don't really thing about it, but if it's a nice dream, it's going to be forever," Graf said.

To realize her dream, Graf had to fight history and a pro-Evert crowd at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach. The crowd, desperately hoping for one more Evert win, roared for every winning shot by Evert and frequently cheered Graf's errors.

And, although Graf claimed she didn't realize the great implications of her victory, her errors were numerous in the first set.

Despite four unforced errors in the first game, Graf won it, serving two aces to go up, 1-0. That set the tone as Graf played just well enough--but not great tennis--to win the match.

There were five breaks of serve in the first set, three for Graf, two for Evert. The most important service break came when Graf went up, 5-3, as Evert lost her serve with a backhand long.

Graf won the first set on her second set point, using a delicate forehand drop volley after a long rally.

The second set looked like a blowout when Graf took a 4-2 lead. However, Evert briefly made things interesting as she rallied to tie the set 4-4. Again, Graf came right back with another break.

Finally, Graf was serving for the match and for the No. 1 ranking. She wasted little time, winning the game at love, with the winning point coming on a backhand volley down the line.

Evert, who defeated Navratilova in Saturday's semifinals to set up Graf's shot at No. 1, wasn't lamenting about her failure to keep the status quo.

"No, I don't feel sad," she said. "Not at all. I don't know if any player will have a career like Martina and I, to tell you the truth. I think we've achieved things in tennis that I would be surprised if other women tennis players will be able to achieve it.

"Steffi has had a great year, but she has to have 10 great years to match our record."

Not only will Graf have to fight off a possible Navratilova resurgence in New York at the U.S. Open, but as the No. 1 player, she now sets the standard for the others to follow.

However, Graf wasn't worrying about the future, especially since she had finally achieved hers on Sunday.

"I think it's very important to be No. 1 before the U.S. Open," said Graf who has won 50 of 51 matches and eight tournaments this year. "It takes the pressure off me, now I can go relaxed into the U.S. Open."

As for Navratilova's comments on the significant day? She wasn't required by tour regulations to meet the press after her doubles victory with Pam Shriver and refused to accommodate requests for a statement.

"I'm unavailable for comment," she told a Slims spokesperson.

And Austin, who had attended the matches throughout the week, wasn't anywhere to be found, either. Which left Evert to provide the perspective on Graf's accomplishment.

"Whenever you have a new No. 1 player, I think that improves the standard of the game altogether," Evert said. "When Martina came along and she dominated for those four or five years, she was really dominating.

"Now, I don't think Martina's game has suffered at all. I think that the others have raised their game to match her standard. Every time there's a new number one player, they really set the standard. Then, the others work hard and as soon as they start reaching that standard, there's a whole new plateau of women's tennis."

And Evert, 32, sounds as if she plans on staying around the upper echelon of women's tennis. At least for a while. This year, the third-ranked Evert has won four tournaments and defeated Navratilova twice, once on clay in the Slims of Houston final. Against Graf, she came closer on Sunday than she did in their previous two meetings.

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