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Navratilova Puts the Coronation of Graf on Hold

September 13, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Maybe it's not going to be as easy as everyone thought. Steffi Graf's seemingly effortless rise to the top of women's tennis had brought forth endorsements from all the tennis experts.

When the 18-year-old Graf wrested the No. 1 ranking from Martina Navratilova last month, many thought she would have no problem in solidifying her grip on the top spot at the U.S. Open.

The line was that Graf is the heavy favorite to win the Open. The players and the media believed it. Even a former champion, Billie Jean King, proclaimed Graf to be the next great star.

And it was all supposed to continue at the U.S. Open. Graf would take the next step in the natural progression and win the championship Saturday at the National Tennis Center.

Seemingly, about the only person who thought differently was the only player who could do something about it. Martina Navratilova, the former No. 1, threw a twist into all of the best-laid plans and stopped the coronation, defeating Graf, 7-6, 6-1, in the women's singles final.

It was almost as though Navratilova rushed into the Stadium Court and grabbed the crown off Graf's head, saying, "Let's not forget about me."

Actually, Navratilova did more than that. The way she dominated Graf on Saturday completely changes the race for No. 1. Although Graf still holds the top spot on the Women's International Tennis Assn. computer, Navratilova certainly has to be considered more than a viable contender for the year-end No. 1 honors.

"We are 2-2 head-to-head," Navratilova said. "The Slims Championships may very well decide it. I'd say right now, I have the edge. I've been in four Grand Slam finals and I have wins in the two big ones. I think it's quality versus quantity. I've had better quality (wins) than her this year.

"I've always said anyone who wins the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, it doesn't really matter what happens the rest of the year."

Graf has lost just two matches in 1987, both to Navratilova, obviously feels differently about the battle for No. 1.

"The ranking says I'm still No. 1, she's still No. 2," Graf said. "I'm not going to say anything against that."

However, the U.S. Open final, in many ways, was viewed as the rubber match between Navratilova and Graf. Graf had defeated Navratilova, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6, on the clay courts at the French Open, which is Graf's best surface. At the grass courts of Wimbledon, Navratilova's favorite surface, Navratilova won, 7-5, 6-3. The hard cement courts at Flushing Meadow were considered a neutral surface, perhaps maybe even favoring Graf.

It might as well have been grass, considering the way Navratilova played. The Open final--with the exception of Graf suffering from a cold--was almost a repeat of their Wimbledon championship match.

They exchanged breaks early in the first set to get back on serve and stayed even until 6-6. The crowd started to get into the match, perhaps remembering the stirring 6-1, 6-7, 7-6 semifinal victory Navratilova scored over Graf in 1986 at the Open.

This tiebreaker wasn't quite as dramatic. Navratilova took a 3-1 lead before Graf aced her and hit a forehand passing shot down the line to tie it, 3-3. Then, Graf hit a backhand passing shot long and smacked another long as Navratilova went up, 5-3.

Graf pulled to 4-5, but Navratilova reached set point when Graf hit a service return wide. And, Navratilova needed just one set point, hitting a serve which curved right into Graf's body. Graf was unable to return it.

"It's funny because before the first point in the tiebreaker, I was thinking about how I haven't won a tiebreaker in the finals at this tournament," Navratilova said. "I lost two of them to Tracy (Austin in 1981) and two of them to Hana (Mandlikova in 1985). Then I remembered I won one against her (Graf) last year. Then, I thought, great, I can do it."

After the first set, Graf never posed a serious threat. Navratilova broke her at 30 in the second game of the second set, to go up, 2-0. In the next game, Navratilova gave Graf a small opening as she had to fight off two break points. But Graf was unable to convert and the door slammed shut.

"I know it's always difficult if you lose the first set like that," Graf said. "But still, I was concentrating. I just couldn't keep it going. It was difficult for me. I also wasn't moving as well as I usually do."

Graf felt she wasn't 100% because of a cold, saying her endurance fell short. And, after her press conference, Graf withdrew from the doubles semifinal match that she and Gabriela Sabatini were supposed to play Saturday night against Navratilova and Pam Shriver.

But despite Graf's cold, Navratilova's fine showing in the final shouldn't be downplayed. Navratilova knew Graf wasn't hitting the ball as well she could after watching the semifinal match against Lori McNeil.

"Pam (Shriver) and Chris (Evert) said she was beatable," Navratilova said. "They knew what to do, but I was able to execute it. I thought I had the game to beat her."

She did. And now, after this year's U.S. Open there is another player who may become the future No. 1 of women's tennis. It's none other than the former champion, Martina Navratilova.

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