A Clash of Champions
Monica Seles Defeats Steffi Graf 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 in the 1992 French Open Final
If one could order a classic match, like a sumptuous meal, the ingredients would surely include two great champions dueling in the final of a premier event, shot-making of the highest caliber, a crowd passionately favoring one player more than the other, and a thrilling, unpredictable denouement.
Click photo: During the 1990-93 prime of Monica Seles, no one hit the ball harder than her off both wings.
The 1992 French Open final between Monica Seles and and Steffi Graf contained all these compelling and memorable elements. When the flamboyant Seles arrived at Paris, she had racked up an astounding 52-5 record at Grand Slam tournaments, winning her last four. The equally intense but reserved Graf had captured a rare Grand Slam sweep plus an Olympic gold medal in 1988 and reigned as No. 1 for 3 1/2 years before Seles deposed her in March 1991.
Seles, who had taken the previous two French titles, pulverized double-handed groundstrokes on both sides and crushed foes with a killer instinct that elicited admiration if not endearment. “I’ve never seen anyone hit that hard from both sides,” praised seven-time French champion Chris Evert, who lost to Seles in the rookie’s second (!) pro tournament in 1989.
Still only twenty-two after nine years on the tour, Graf had recovered from the trauma of her father’s highly publicized marital indiscretions in 1990 and was playing superlative tennis again. Her forehand, probably the most devastating shot in women’s tennis history up to then, powerful (100 mph plus) serve, and tremendous foot speed bedazzled opponents, while Seles marveled at Graf’s perfect physique and overall athleticism. “I think Steffi is the ideal, what any athlete in tennis would want to reach,” praised Seles.
Graf possessed a devastating and consistent forehand, the greatest forehand in women’s tennis history.
Although Seles, a native of Yugoslavia and based in the United States since 1986, had beaten Graf in the 1990 French final, Graf had won their last two
matches and enjoyed a 5-2 edge overall. Most experts believed Graf needed more variety in her repertoire—such as drop shots, net rushes, topspin backhands, and changes of pace. Otherwise, Seles would almost certainly beat her at her own baseline game on the slow, salmon-colored clay.
As always, Seles came out slugging, or as she aptly described her style, “I go for every shot and give it everything I’ve got.” That proved more than sufficient because she reeled off 11 of the opening 12 points, broke Graf’s serve at love in the second game and grabbed the opening set 6-2 in 26 minutes.
Graf’s game came to life in the second set just as the gray, 66-degree Parisian afternoon began to brighten. A big forehand produced her first service break and a
3-2 lead. After trading breaks in the next two games, Graf escaped from three break points—two with her explosive forehand and the other with a rare topspin backhand winner—to hold serve and go ahead 5-3. Her confidence was growing, and she walloped her 17th forehand winner to break Seles at love to finish off the 6-3 set and even the match.
Since Graf abandoned the all-court game she used earlier in the match, her forehand would have to be the deciding factor in the climactic third set. Graf pounded a crosscourt forehand winner to start the final set and went on to hold serve. She led for the first time in the match.
Click photo: Graf closed out this long exchange with a rare topspin backhand winner.
With the pressure rising and the stakes increasing, Seles hit even harder and screeched her trademark “ee-AHHH” even louder. She smacked a backhand winner to hold serve for 1-all and then belted another winner down the line on her fourth break point to go in front 2-1.
With the drama building, many of the 17,000 Court Central spectators were screaming for Graf between every point. The courageous German needed every bit of support as Seles’ booming shots were dictating the baseline exchanges.
Both women held serve over the next three games which left Graf trailing 4-2.
The players slugged it out like two heavyweights in a brutal title fight, trying to seize the pivotal seventh game. Graf saved a sensational, 18-stroke break point with an inside-out forehand winner and finally held the 18-point marathon game to make the score 4-3.
Mentally worn by the ordeal, Graf lost the next game with loose, unforced errors at love. She now found herself one game away from defeat.
Chants of “Steff-ee, Steff-ee” reverberated throughout Stade Roland Garros. In the most exciting game of the fortnight, Graf fought off four championship points — the first one saved by a mighty forehand, the second by a nifty backhand volley-overhead combination, the third by another forehand, and the fourth, surprisingly, by a backhand slice placement. Graf trailed 5-4, but she was still alive.
Seles, frustrated and drained by the previous game, was easily broken at 15 to tie the match at 5-all. Graf then barely escaped a service break when a Seles forehand—which Seles was so sure hit the line that she headed for the changeover —was called out. Both tenacious combatants managed to hold their serves to 7-all.
Ironically, Graf missed a routine forehand putaway to give Seles a crucial service break and an 8-7 advantage. Seles now served for the championship again. At 15-love, mercurial Graf made several terrific gets and powered a backhand past a confused Seles, backtracking in mid-court. The crowd roared and Graf pumped
her fist. Fired up, she broke back to even the score at 8-all.
But Graf, who played better when she was behind, couldn’t sustain the momentum. On the 24th stroke of a fierce rally, with Graf hammering forehand after forehand before Seles finally pinned her in the backhand corner, Seles broke her with an excellent backhand placement. That made it 9-8 for Seles.
Click photo: On her sixth championship point, Seles zeroed in on her foe's vulnerable slice backhand. Graf desperately ran around it, hitting an off-balance forehand into the net. Game, set, and title, Seles!
Seles, serving, surged ahead 40-15. When a nerveless Graf staved off a fifth championship point with a forehand winner, the fans went wild. On championship
point No. 6, Seles zeroed in on her foe’s vulnerable slice backhand. Graf
desperately ran around it, hitting an off-balance forehand into the net. Game, set and title, Seles!
Ecstatic but exhausted, the eighteen-year-old phenom pumped her fist and raised her racquet in victory before spinning toward her proud, happy father-coach Karolj and mother Esther. Seles had become the first woman to win three straight French singles crowns since German Hilde Sperling in 1935−37.
Near tears, Graf thanked the French crowd for their wonderful support. “I’ve been to a lot of places, but I’ve never had a crowd like this—never, ever before.”
Equally gracious Seles told the thoroughly entertained onlookers, “It is the most emotional match I ever played. It is just too bad whoever lost. Both deserved to win.”
She couldn’t have said it better.
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