Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Golden Girl in Paris
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Golden Girl in Paris 12/11/2008 - 1:32 PM

In what other line of business can you go from promising rookie at 15 to the peak of your career at 19? In this sense, women’s tennis is like nothing else I can think of, for better and for worse. Its fan base seems at least partly drawn by the surreal spectacle of seeing teenage superathlete divas go toe to toe for tons of money and prestigious titles. It makes for drama and emotion that the men have trouble matching, and for remarkable battles of will—irresistable forces versus immovable objects—like the one we'll see below.

I thought we needed to watch Graf at her peak in 1988, her glory year, when she won all the majors plus Olympic gold at age 19. It’s a year that might conceivably be equaled, but can never be surpassed. Is it greater than Laver’s 1969? I can’t say, because that means you would have to label one of those seasons as worse.

I didn’t find a lot of high-quality stuff from the Golden Slam—no U.S. Open, no Seoul, a bad video of her win over Evert in Australia—so I settled on the last 10 minutes of her 6-3, 7-6 (3) semifinal win at the French Open over her semi-rival and doubles partner at the time, the much-missed Gabriela Sabatini. Two days later, Graf would humiliate Natasha Zvereva love and love for the title. This at least was a competitive match.

—It looks overcast, which at Roland Garros means that everything slows down, the ball, the rallies, the players, and the tempo. You can see that in the measured way that both of these women approach points. Graf seems more patient than usual. Sabatini seems exhausted.

—Graf’s game: Was it more influential on men’s tennis than women’s? Is there anyone who followed in her serve-forehand footsteps on the WTA side? Her forehand was certainly one of a kind: Late take-back, late contact point, quick whip into the follow through—as I’ve said before, it was one shot that had the force of nature.

—Watching Graf and Becker as teens, I’d say they what they had in common the most was a sort of hell-bent all-court fearlessness that briefly broke down old divisions in the sport. Becker hurled his body all over the place and right through the barrier between baseliner and net-rusher. He was both at once. Graf broke down the idea of “changing the direction of the ball.” She ran around her forehand as much as any woman I can remember, and in doing that she developed the ability to hit it from anywhere, to anywhere, at any time.

—I do miss the twirly, painterly quality of Sabatini’s ground strokes, and that slow John Wayne walk she did between points. You can see her trying to slow Graf’s tempo. That’s a lost cause. Steffi still kept an extra ball in her hand when she served; she didn’t stop for a drink, or for anything, during the change of ends in the tiebreaker; and even on crucial points she refused to take an extra second before serving.

—Graf also didn't react much differently whether she won or lost a point. This was a great strength of hers, and perhaps she played quickly in order to put whatever had come before out of her mind.

—Graf won six titles at Roland Garros, but I’d say she had a grass game rather than a clay game. She does a good job of measuring her strokes here, slowing herself down, and not going for broke immediately. She seemed in her element more at Wimbledon, where she could win with forehand drives alone.

—A fair amount of net play here from Graf, especially on clay. As you might expect, she had a killer overhead most of the time, and she was too athletic to park herself at the baseline all day.

—In the middle of the breaker, you can see Graf “step it up,” as the cliché goes. She knows she can end the mach here, so she runs around a Sabatini serve to pummel a forehand, then takes control of the next point with another big forehand. Graf is known as the all-time athlete and mover, but she couldn’t have won so many matches without knowing just when to turn that athleticism on.

—Obviously the serve was a major key between these two. Sabatini looked like she was starting all of her service points uphill; Graf went downhill on hers.

—In the end, this is a pretty routine win for Graf, over one of the best players in the world at the time. No more proof of her dominance in 1988 is needed.

We’ve moved four years ahead, to one of the best matches that Graf was involved in during her career, the 1992 French final, which she lost to Monica Seles 8-6 in the third.

—No courts are as changeable as those at Roland Garros. I can't tell if it's sunny, but on this day the ball appears to be flying; it’s a different game from the one played by Graf and Sabatini four years earlier.

—It’s also different because Seles has increased the speed of the women’s game incrementally. The fact that she blasted mercilessly with two hands on both sides has probably made her the more influential player of the two. You can see—and hear—the Williams sisters coming when you watch Seles in ’92.

—If anything, Graf is hitting her forehand closer to her body and pulling up on it more quickly and violently than she did in '88. She’s also making more errors with it. Through the mid-90s, she would periodically have days when she couldn’t find the court, or the broad side of a barn if one had been there, with that shot.

—Seles may not have been the world’s greatest mover, but she seemed to read Graf’s forehand extraordinarily well.

—Watching this, I find myself missing the rangy mix of speed and power that Graf brought to the court. Venus Williams is probably the closest descendant to her today—it's entertaining just watching each of them cover a court. Like any tennis champion, Graf was an aberration at some level. Her quiet—"still waters run deep" comes to mind—hunger to win and almost-haughty focus were things to marvel at, not to try to imitate.

Tomorrow a look at Graf’s fearsome late-career match against Venus Williams, when the guard at Wimbledon didn’t quite change; plus Becker’s greatest defeat.


 
70
Comments
 

Posted by Blake 12/11/2008 at 01:59 PM

I'm loving this feature on Steffi. My first tennis memory was her Wimbledon final victory over Novotna in '93. Seles-Graf at the French Open was a little before my time, but thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch the entire match. It was quite possibly the best women's match of all time.

I agree that grass (and particularly, Wimbledon) were kinder to Graf's game. Clay, especially later in her career, became a difficult proposition. Her six wins in Paris are testament to her supreme athletic ability and her stubborn nature.

Also, in the later stages of her career (mid to late '90s), it seemed that her forehand may have lost velocity, but had gained in accuracy. Her unique game will likely never be replicated.

Posted by Pspace 12/11/2008 at 02:40 PM

Steve, A couple of observations/questions:

1. I feel that Steffi (or the Steffi-style) has had more of an impact in men's tennis. I see Federer as the male version, with a better backhand. There are some differences in the forehand as well, but I believe this is mainly due to difference in arm strength. Fed doesn't have to rely on hip rotation as much.

2. Was Graf's RG success partly due the lack of a quality lefty opponent? The slice to the opponent's forehand would not be such a good idea anymore. Seles got the better of her, and it's unfortunate that we'll never know how that would've played out over an extended period.

Nevertheless, Steffi vs Gabby is always a pleasure -- pretty women with a one handed backhand. I'm in heaven!

Posted by SwissMaestro 12/11/2008 at 02:42 PM

Steve-

Graf's forehand & movement - Are the best in the history of the women's game. Pretty much the equivalent to Federer's for the men.

In the same way Nadal does slow down to 0 MPH everytime the match gets tight Graf seemed to try to actually increase the tempo or to make her opponent keep up with speed, both are mental games these two play/played.

It seems to me that as much of an athlete as Graf was Seles could still outplay her from the baseline, Graf had to use her -all-court skill (movement) and run around her forehand a lot to open the court or bring Seles out of position to win a point. It is kind of the same sort of match-up that exists today with Federer and Nadal when they play on clay.

Posted by Steve 12/11/2008 at 02:53 PM

yes, true, the graf seles match reminds me of federer-nadal, with the lefty seles in the counterpunching role of rafa.

on clay, both of them always seem to be in the right place at the right time

Posted by Sher 12/11/2008 at 02:58 PM

Thanks for the article, steve. I don't watch women's tennis but you somehow made it seem exciting!

Posted by richie 12/11/2008 at 03:48 PM

Steve - In watching the two clips, as you said, one is struck by the increased tempo and pace of the Seles - Graf match. And also, even though Seles was not noted for her speed, Graf got very few winners by her.The clay probably helped Seles get to some of Steffi's forehands. Steffi's career record against Seles is 10 wins and 5 losses, but one has to factor in the unfortunate stabbing at Seles' peak. One can only imagine how many more great matches they might have played against each other.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/11/2008 at 03:50 PM

A few observations...

1. Steffi was wielding a man's racquet -- that Dunlop 200G, I believe, which McEnroe alos used for a time.

2. Steffi could fly. The woman had wheels like we've not sen since, except maybe in Jankevic.

3. Sabatini big rolling topspins were the perfect antithesis to Steffi's blunt-force forehands and buzz-saw backhands. Seems to me that were it not for Steffi's blazing speed and penetrating serves, Sabatini could have used the deep loop to Graf's backhand corner to win, much in the way Nadal does to Federer.

4. Steffi's service motion reminds me an awful lot of Boris Becker's. Not purely coincidental, I suspect. Same stance (without the knee bend), same high ball toss, nearly the same grip, same slightly sidespin first delivery which made the ball go in so deep.

5. Sabatini, in her look, walk, and mannerisms, reminds me an awful lot of Mario Ancic. A female Mario. Both supremely good-looking human beings, too.

6. And most amazing thing of all, Steffi began each service point with two balls in her hand, and refused to drop the second if her first serve hit its mark. I wonder how many, if any, points she lost throughout her career by accidentally dropping the ball during play.

Now I'll read the post.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/11/2008 at 04:12 PM

What I recall most about Seles when she came on the tour like gangbusters was that she was for the most part the first truly great player to hail from such a small nation in an obscure part of the world that had been sliced and diced after two world wars. She was almost foreign in a way no other "foreigner" had been. She was a mystery, a face behind a veil. Yet she reallly was the most joyful, open and sweet person.

And she did indeed herald in the new game -- hit cross court bullets away from your opponent until (a) they drop or (b) you create a big enough space to hit a clean winner or come to the net behind.

Posted by John 12/11/2008 at 04:15 PM

How is the Dunlop 200G a man's racquet? Martina N. played with it for quite a while too.

Also, high loopers to Graf's backhand is exactly how Sabatini beat Graf in 88 and 89. During the 90-92 period when was playing her best tennis, she beat Graf with a combo coming to the net and high topspin. Her serve was never a strength, but it wasn't really a weakness until after the 1993 French Open meltdown. That was when the double faults crept in. Before then, she was able to compensate for her mediocre serve with her great defense.

Posted by John 12/11/2008 at 04:17 PM

Also, I don't believe Graf and Becker used the same serve grip either. Becker used the continental grip, which was rather rare for the 80s. Graf appears to be serving with the more traditional serve grip.

Posted by Pete 12/11/2008 at 04:24 PM

Nice post, Steve. On Graf and the fh: Sanchez once beat her by playing neutral balls to her forehand, knowing that Graf was best (or should I say most comfortable) setting up her forehand for a killer putaway. In that match, Graf was unable to resist going for too much, too soon,and made numerous forehand unforced errors of impatience. Oddly enough, I never saw anyone (including Sanchez) go that route after that match (you could call it the "break down your opponent's strength" approach) and it remains one of the real mysteries of my time covering tennis - mainly because I believe it would have worked - and partly because Steffi was very much a player who liked to play a pattern, and while her slice backhand was a set-up shot for the fh placement, she could hit it all day, in total comfort, where she was ALWAYS looking to let her forehand rip.

Posted by Blake 12/11/2008 at 04:45 PM

I just finished re-reading Pete's book, The Courts of Babylon, and there was an interesting passage on the 1992 French Open regarding Graf and Sanchez Vicario. ASV won the opening set 6-0 using the same strategy highlighted above, but then strayed from that gameplan and lost the next two sets, 2 and 2. And having seen many of the Graf-ASV finals, I have to agree with that statement. ASV generally tried to keep the ball in play, regardless of placement, and hope that Graf would misfire. I do feel that Graf's forehand increased slightly in consistency in her later years, although some power was sacrificed.

In Sampras' book, I seem to remember a certain strategy in regards to Jim Courier re: the forehand.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/11/2008 at 05:07 PM

Actually, John, I believe the traditional/conventional serving grip is the continental, which is like the old-school backhand grip. It is essentally the volley grip, an Becker definitely moved the V in hi hand over to th eright at least one, maye two bevels, thereby making it more of an eastern forehand grip. Steffi also slid hers a little to the right, but maybe only half as far as Becker.

I say the 200G is a "man's racquet" simply because of it's heft. It was a solid, heavy stick. Perfect for bludgoning people with forehands and serves. How McEnroe got so much touch out f I'll never know. Maybe it had something to do with the combination of heft, solid feel and string type, gauge and tension.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/11/2008 at 05:12 PM

Oh, ang my point about Sabatini related specifically to the match shown in the clip above. It seems to me her deep loop topspin drives to the Graf backhand corner are th eperfect foil to Graf's bullets. IMy point was that were it not for her incredible speed and a serve that bothered Sabatini (because it was difficult to take a full sweep at it like she'd have preferred to do; you'll notice her making some crisp, bunt-like returns, particularly on the backhand wing), Sabatini might very well have, and really should have, won this match (and probably every match these two women played on the slow red brick.

But this is why they play the game and we watch them--because you can't write scripts and expect the players to stay in character. The great champions will find a way to defy the odds and make the pre-game analysis irrelevant.

Posted by mri 12/11/2008 at 05:19 PM

Wasn't Graf-Seles 92' French final 10-8 in the third? It was heart-breaking if you were a Steffi fan. But Graf got a good bit of revenge over Monica in the Wimbledon Final that year. I always thought some of Graf's career records can never be broken. But was really surprised when Roger broke her consecutive weeks at #1 record. It was incredible for Graf to dominate in the women's game, but even more so for Roger to beat that record by a good stretch. That one might stand for a while.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/11/2008 at 05:42 PM

Yes, the strategy, or tactic, really, of gong to the strength to either elicit an impatient error or to set up a winning play to the weaker side, is one of the oldest and least employed succcessful tactics in the game. It's a gamble of sorts, but depending on the particular player and their particular stroke strengths and weaknesses, it can be less of a gamble if executed well and relentlessly.

In my only amateur playing career, there's been this one guy who can clock a forehand like nobody's business. It's not pretty--he stands there flat-footed completely facing the net--but he can belt it upwards of 90mph, consistently. And when he finds his range, he's deadly with it. Well, the very first time I played him I was leading 6-3, 3-1 serving (I had seen only glimpses of the forehand at tha point, and wasn't too concerned as he let many a FH fly) when I put in a good kick first serve deep to his backhand in the ad court box. He anticipated it, quickly shuffled to his left around his backhand, and rifled a FH shot down the line that left me utterly breathless. And oddly enough, from that point on he could not miss that inside-out forehand, no matter how hard he swung. I went down in three sets.

THe next two times I played him I did eveyting I could to avoid letting him see a forehand, and of course it backfired miserably. In fact, my lame-brained tactic misfred so badly that he actually hit MORE forehands in a two-set drubbing than he had hit in our entire first meeting. I was so defeated I never wanted to see him on the oposite side of the net again.

But of course, soon enough I had to face him again. This time, I thought the thing through, and determined that my best tactic would be to go to his forehand early, right away if possble, and especially if I had a forehand that I could send cross-court to his FH (we both being righties). I would lookk for something that wasn't 90+ mph and then take it straight back to his backhand corner deep, or even short, low and wide to that BH side, and follow it to the net and poke away a volley or smash an overhead into the open court.

Lo and behold, it worked like a charm, and I won our next two meetings in straight sets, the second (fifth meeting overall) in much easier fashion than the one before. He still owns a better H2H over me, but I've got the satisfaction of owning the last two straight. More important, though, was that I learned that sometomes what may look like an impenetrable strength may in actuality not be one. Yes, he had a blazing inside-out FH, particularly from the bakhand side of his court, but he did not hit the forehand well when forced to move to his right or hit it on the run. It was no better than anyone else's forehand, and that allowed me to make a string shot to his far weaker side and come in behind it for the kill shot.

Of course, in the pro game there is rarely such a large delta in comparative strength between a player's forehand and their backhand. I can think of two offhand -- Jimmy Arias and Jim Courier. Some might want to throw Sampras in there, but I would beg to differ. His backhand was plenty good, it just wasn't a greatest in history shot like his running forehand was.

At any rate, the key to playing to a person's strength is a matter of knowing several things about that player and being confident that you can execute your shots. You must know the following:

- Which shot(s) does the player hit best from his stronger wing?
- Which shot(s) does he not hit as well from that wing?
- Is there a shot that the player's weaker wing is vulnerable to?
- When (at what point in the exchange) does the player prefer to really crank up his strongest shot? For example, does he go for it right out of the blocks? Or does he like to first establish a little rhythm, move the ball around the court to expose his opponent's weakness or open up a lane?
- Which shots are you yourself comfortable in making a defensive or neutral play with? You will need to be able to absorb a few blows from his string wing.
- Which shots are you most confident that you can attack with?
- Do you have an end-game tactic? A shot or combination of shots that you are confident you can make to end the point?

Once you've answered these and a few other more nuanced question I won't get into here, you can formulate a strategy and a set of tactics that you can use. For example, a good play against Nadal on a fast surface is to serve BIG to his strength, his forehand. THe sheer length of his backswing works against him in this case, as he struggles to get that racquet around on the ball and make a clean hit. Of course, his opponent must expect that now and again Nadal will find his mark with brutal effciency. But in the end, it is a good tactic, in terms of the payoff -- which is getting him to move to his left to open up an attacking lane to his right, where his less potent but more stable backhand is. In reality, against Nadal you must hit the forehand hard and deep, then go to the backhand hard and eep or sharp and wide, then back hard and deep to the forehand in order to finally draw an error or a weaker reply that you can employ your end-game tactics on.

Seems complicated, but isn't.

Posted by DJ 12/11/2008 at 06:14 PM

Pretty insightful Steve with the assertion that Steffi changed the men's game more than women's. I imagine a lot of WTA bashers would decry heresy at such an assertion.

In that regard, I agree with Pspace, Federer does seem like a male Graf, ableit with some improvements.

Frankly, if Steffi didn't have kids, I think she would make an excellent coach for Federer. He seems cosmopolitan enough to be alright with a female coach (after all, he has admitted to using Mirka as a hitting partner) and they even share a lot of similarities in professionalism and off-court dedication. As others have mentioned, Seles played a similar game to Nadal's and troubled Steffi, so who better to give you advice on how to beat him than someone who's "been there, done that"?

Posted by Griff 12/11/2008 at 07:27 PM

Damn it Steve.Why did you have to mention Seles.Now im sad.

Posted by Griff 12/11/2008 at 07:39 PM

"From January 1991 through February 1993, Seles won 22 titles and reached 33 finals out of the 34 tournaments she played. She compiled a 159–12 win-loss record (92.9% winning percentage), including a 55–1 win-loss record in Grand Slam tournaments."


It makes me want to cry always when when i read this.. (taken from Wikipedia)

Posted by Marcel in Montreal 12/11/2008 at 08:00 PM

Monica, with her two-handed forehand, could expose Steffi's BH like no one else. Too bad all that ended on April 30, 1993.

Posted by Christopher 12/11/2008 at 08:19 PM

Griff, me too. I remember the moment when I heard about it (which was, oddly enough, in a hotel room in Datong, China) and was just devastated. The history of the women's game would have been very different.

(Just to be clear, this is not to take anything away from Steffi, of whom I've always been a big fan as well. I actually like her game a lot more than Monica's, but something about Monica always made me smile.)

Posted by Griff 12/11/2008 at 08:51 PM

That's because she was a cute little fighter,a bit loud though heh.

Posted by John 12/11/2008 at 09:16 PM

I think one of the worst tragedies when it comes to Seles' record is that she never had a chance at Wimbledon again. Actually in 98, after that run to the French final, I thought that was the best shot she'd get. She had a great draw. But if not for the stabbing, she surely could have won in 1994 and possibly 1997.

Posted by skip1515 12/11/2008 at 09:58 PM

1. Regarding Slice-n-Dice's comment about the similarity between Graf's and Becker's serves: I'd never noticed it, but yup, it's certainly there. All the keynotes SnD mentions, plus a slightly open stance to start off, the hip rocking on the backswing. Good call, SnD.

2. I'd forgotten that Graf was coached for awhile by Pavel Slozil. Funny, his game was similar to her later coach, Heinz Gunthard; all court game, no single outstanding weapon, relatively slight build.

3. Graf may have influenced the men's game, but we also have to give credit (sic) to Sabatini, who may very well have been the first topshelf player with such an extreme backhand grip for the topspin backhand. She could juice up the backhand something fierce, but the contact point is so far at the end of the swing with that grip that you either have to be really strong or have extreme racquet head speed, otherwise you have nothing *but* spin; ideally you're both strong and have the head speed, especially with racquets circa 1990. Remember, the commonly cited coaching tip for winning more matches for Sabatini was that she had to flatten out her strokes more often. Well, that and find a serve towards the latter part of her career.

4. Has anyone ever been able to change the direction of the ball as frequently and successfully as Graf could off her forehand wing? I don't think so.

5. Me, I'd say Graf's success on grass was as much a function of her backhand as her forehand. We can still see today how effective slice is against players who want good rhythm so they can stroke 'till the cows come; on grass it's even more deadly, especially the grass of 20 years ago. Is the KO punch valuable without the dependable combo that sets it up?

Posted by Tsong 12/11/2008 at 10:50 PM


I reviewed the Graf-Seles RG'92 more than 10 times,

and I understand now why Graf said many times that it was the most disappointing loss of her career.

she had lots of shots which so much power that could not find the lines. on ordinary days, those would have been winners.

RG'92 final was on Graf's racket, she was more aggressive of the two players, she went for her shots, missed by an inch or half-inch on numerous occasions. You could sense that she wanted to make a statement.

But she blew her chance, and instead she had the nightmare of her life.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/11/2008 at 10:51 PM

skip1515,

Thanks for supporting my thesis about the similarities between the service motions of Graf and Becker. And you're spot on aboit the foreward-facing stance with legs well apart, the hip rocking forward then back on the backswing. From the looks of it, they might easily have been taught this motion from the same coach or academy.

Thanks for bringing up the extreme knuckles-up grip on Sabatini's backhand, and more important, the technical difficulty of sustaining pace and depth with such an exaggerated grip and early point of contact. I couldn't agree more. I would only point out that Guillermo Vilas had the same grip on his backhand, and he predated Sabatini by a decade. But that's neither here nor there, really. The point remains valid. Almost all of today's ine-handed backhands are struck with this knuckles-up grip. I'm guessing that the only reason that Vilas could pul it off was because he was the strongest player of his generation -- he had some amazing leg, back, abdominal and shoulder muscles, and pretty healthy guns, too.

Agree about Graf. And I might add that she is still my all-time favorite player, men and women combined. I just loved watching her dismantle opponent after opponent -- a true assassin.

I think you would find, if you could go back through one of the recent posts, that I pretty much said the same thing about Graf's slice, and pointed out that once the players began clobbering everything frm the baseline on courts that rewarded power and a higher bounce, her slice was not as effective. Her game was tailor-made for grass, despite not possessing a serve-and-volley game.

Posted by ogno 12/11/2008 at 10:58 PM

WAS SELES GREATER THAN STEFFI GRAF?

Here Are The Facts:

BEFORE THE STABBING: GRAF AS NUMBER ONE

1989 French Open Semifinals, Clay - Graf 6-3, 3-6, 6-3
1989 Wimbledon, 4th Round, Grass – Graf 6-1, 6-0
1989 Brighton, Final, Carpet – Graf 7-5, 6-4
1990 Berlin-German Open Final, Clay - Seles 6-4, 6-3
1990 French Open Final, Clay - Seles 7-6, 6-4

Sub-total: Graf Wins 3-2 :: Games 57-48


BEFORE THE STABBING: SELES AS NUMBER ONE

1991 US Hardcourts Final Hard – Graf 6-4, 6-3
1991 Citizen Cup Final, Clay - Graf 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-3
1992 French Open Final, Clay – Seles 6-2, 3-6, 10-8,
1992 Wimbledon Final, Grass – Graf, 6-2, 6-1
1993 Australian Open Final Hard - Seles 4-6, 6-3, 6-2

Sub-total: Graf Wins 3-2 :: Games: 69-54


AFTER THE STABBING: SELES AS CO-NUMBER ONE

1995 US Open Final Hard - Graf 7-6(6), 0-6, 6-3
1996 US Open Final Hard - Graf 7-5, 6-4
1998 YEC Chase Championships QF Carpet - Graf 1-6, 6-4, 6-4
1999 Australian Open QF Hard - Seles 7-5, 6-1
1999 French Open Semifinal Clay – Graf 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-4

Sub-total: Graf Wins 4-1 Games: 64-64

OVERALL TOTALS:

Graf 10-5 :: Total Games 190-166.


ANALYSIS

Contrary to what is often claimed, Seles never established complete dominance over Graf on two major phases PRIOR TO THE STABBING.

(a) Before the Stabbing, when Graf was Number One
(b) Before the Stabbing, when Seles was Number One.

So was Seles greater than Graf?

The fact that Seles could not win a Slam in 1997-98 when Graf was sidelined by injury and women's tennis was ruled by a petulant puffball-serve Hingis

speaks a lot about the true depth of Monica Seles.

She can't blame all her missed opportunities on Graf.

Posted by Tony 12/12/2008 at 12:39 AM

Ogno, that was topnotch analysis. I heartily agree. There is so much hype and speculation on what could have been, if Seles had not had that tragic experience. But people forget that "injuries" could also be emotional, etc., something that Seles herself would use as an excuse when her father died, but something that really hit Graf because of the scandals that hit her own father in the early 90s, when Seles would take over the no.1 spot.

Posted by Donal Lynch 12/12/2008 at 02:17 AM

Ogno that analysis ignores a few key facts. The first is that Seles was beating Graf in all of the crucial matches in the two years before she was stabbed. Yes Steffi got some tour wins but Monica was beating her in the slam finals. Monica won 3 slams in both 91 and 92 - she was dominating. The second point is that Steffi as the second seed was often not reaching the finals that Monica was winning. And so their record then is distorted in the same way that Nadal's record over Federer is distorted. Thirdly Seles was cut down in her prime, on a huge winning streak, at just 19 years of age. She was still in the ascent. My guess is that they would have had some great matches over the years and would have finished near to each other in slam totals (some less for Steffi, some more for Monica). Monica was too frail physically to continue at the pace she established but at the same time if you look at Steffi's form in 93 - 94 Monica would have beaten her (as she would have Martinez and Sanchez who took 3 of the 4 slams between them in 94). It was eternally disappointing that she never really committed to getting in shape post stabbing though. Had she had a bit more in the tank she could have easily won US Open 95 and the French 97 - 98. Maddening to see her looking so svelte and lean today.

Posted by BackHandLob 12/12/2008 at 02:30 AM

Lendl was running round his back hand to hit forehand shots, long before Graf arrived on the scene and hitting big heavy serves and heavy ground strokes from the baseline before Becker arrived on the scene. He is really the first of the modern players and not Becker or Graf. Most of today's players are updated versions of Lendl, even Federer; even though many tennis journalists and followers do not want accept that. Many in the tennis fraternity seem to want to deny him his legacy or even write him completely out of tennis history.

Posted by Ro'ee 12/12/2008 at 02:35 AM

Steve, we only got cable in 91 (for obvious reasons- during the gulf war everybody was stuck indoors and our parents had to have 30 minutes a day rest, plus CNN became a necessity), so this was the second year I could watch R.G. and the first time I watched the women's final. What's amazing is that I've been staring at the page for 15 minutes and haven't been able to press "play". This, more than any match in history, hurts. I never liked Monica's game, but I've disliked other games and it's never come to this. Somewhere deep inside this match makes me remember that if it hadn't been for Gunter Parche Graf's record would be less impressive (no matter what I tell myself about Monica's deteriorating physical fitness at the time).
Also, "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" was wonderful. So was Blackadder. Hugh Laurie had a brilliant comic career before House, and I invite you to get some DVDs of those.

Posted by Oyama 12/12/2008 at 04:13 AM

God i miss Steffi Graf. She was is still the greastest player ever. If it wasn't for Graf i would have never started playing the game of tennis. The is no star in womans game today that can equal her.

Love you Steffi

Posted by skip1515 12/12/2008 at 08:21 AM

Steve: I suspect your comment about the different conditions at Roland Garros between the two clips is accurate. Notice that Graf is wearing a vest in the earlier match and, as you wrote, the sun is clearly not out in full force.

It's also accurate to say that Seles, by virtue of playing a power game compared to Sabatini's, made it easier for Graf to reply in kind, most especially if the court was dry and quicker in the Seles/Graf match.

Oy, having to create all your own pace against Sabatini's loopiness, on damp clay. Hieronymus Bosch purgatory, if you ask me.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/12/2008 at 08:29 AM

BackHandLob,

I concur with your assertion that Ivan Lendl really was the true progenitor of the modern game. We saw hints of it with Connors and Borg -- the baseline assault style from Connors and the semi-western grip and more open stance on forehands from Borg -- but Lendl truly made fitness, power and the serve+inside-in/inside-out forehand from the backhand qaudrant combo the prerequisite to a winning game at the pro level.

Still, Steffi captured my heart and thrilled me with her striking figure and dashing game.

Posted by ChrisAmerica 12/12/2008 at 09:46 AM

The post by "ogno" is so right on point. So many peeps try and say that Monica dominated Steffi, or Monica was the better player. Steffi overall was the better player between the two holding a 10-5 edge. Steffi held the edge when she was number one and when Seles became number one and then when Graf became number one for the last segment. That post was so beautifully outlined and succinct.

Now let me add this as a coup' de'tat' - this rivalry will always have intrigue, speculation, remiss and regret because of its unique set of circumstances and related experiences but the that is what makes the whole conversation about the dynamics of Steffi and Monica so palatable and rich with passion!

Posted by 12/12/2008 at 10:41 AM

Monica was absolutely dominating the game from 1991 to the stabbing. Steffi wasn't making many major finals, so who knows what would have happened if they met more. To say Steffi would have had the same record even if it Monica wasn't stabbed is ridiculous. She wouldn't even agree with that! Her own husband has been quoted as saying that.

My personal opinion is that Graf might still have had more Slams when all is said and done because of her physical superiority. I also think Martinez, Sanchez Vicario, and Pierce would not have won Slams. And I also doubt that Hingis would have had such a great 1997, but I do think she was good enough to challenge Graf and Seles. Who knows though?

Posted by Arun 12/12/2008 at 10:41 AM

I'm a huge Graf fan; I'm liking this series of posts on Graf. I like the astute comments by several posters (the ones by slice-n-dice and Pspace, in particular) too. I wish the Seles-Graf rivalry had continued for the years to come.

Posted by Dave 12/12/2008 at 11:02 AM

ChrisAmerica and Ogno, no matter how much you try and spin it, it is Seles' dominance over Graf in the slam finals pre-stabbing that is really what people are referring to when they talk about Seles' dominance over Graf. That is, after all, all that matters in tennis. I think if Seles hadn't been stabbed, Graf would have one nearly all the matches they played in the smaller tournaments, and Seles would have won nearly all the matches they played in the slams.

Posted by Blake 12/12/2008 at 11:16 AM

Graf and Seles were almost evenly matched in their rivalry between '91-'93. The reason that Seles experienced so much success during that period is not so much her domination of Graf, but the fact that Graf failed to maintain the consistency of Seles in terms of reaching tournament (and Grand Slam) finals. For example, Graf lost in the SF of '91 French (Vicario), '91 US Open (Navratilova) and the QF of '91 Australian (Novotna) and '92 US Open (Vicario). Credit Seles for staying the course and fully taking advantage of her opportunities. In that period, she had a stronger record than Graf, but comparing the results head-to-head shows how close their rivalry truly was.

Posted by Dave 12/12/2008 at 11:26 AM

But Blake, it wasn't all that close in the slams, which is what people are saying. I agree with you that if Seles had had to face Graf in the final of a Lipton, or Hamburg or Rome, she would lose, but I think if Seles had to face Graf in the US Open, French or Australian, she would win. Wimbledon would always be Graf, but I doubt Seles would have made another final. She was incredibly lucky with her draw in 1992. She really wasn't a grass courter at all.

Posted by John 12/12/2008 at 11:34 AM

I totally disagree with the comment that Seles would not have reached another Wimbledon final. It would be hard to bet against her in 1994. Possibly even 1993, where Graf didn't play particularly well at all. I do think she would always struggle against Graf on grass. But also remember in the 92 final, Seles stopped grunting because of the fuss Tauziat and Navratilova made. It clearly had an effect on her game. I am not saying she would have won if she grunted, but it might have been a closer match.

Posted by Blake 12/12/2008 at 11:52 AM

@Dave: I agree that Graf would always be dominant at Wimbledon, as Seles' game was never fit for the green lawns. The two three-set Grand Slam finals they played in that period ('92 French and '93 Australian) were extremely close contests, so I think it's difficult to be conclusive about who would win on the major stages. Seles seemed to have a slight upper hand, but it's hard to speculate further. In my view, Seles would have won a few more major titles, and Graf would not have captured quite as many.

Posted by Hans 12/12/2008 at 12:13 PM

At the time of her peak I once heard the rumor that she could run a 800m in about 2:10 min.

Posted by Eric 12/12/2008 at 12:50 PM

Had Seles not been stabbed, I think the Graf-Seles rivalry would have broken down by Surface. Graf would have the edge on the faster surfaces while Seles would had the edge on the slower surfaces.

Posted by LoveAmerica 12/12/2008 at 12:53 PM

I think that was because she was doped up, if rumors are to be believed.

Posted by Ianesco 12/12/2008 at 02:21 PM

As for the skewed and manipulated stats re: Graf-Seles 1991-1993, it's important to take into account that a "rivalry" between the top two players on a tour involves more than just those players' head-to-head meetings. It also involves how both of the top players cope with the entire scope of competition on the tour in order to *win* events, period, much less in order to get to the finals of events wherein they can play each other.

In the obvious picture, it's clear that Seles was dominant from 91-Jan 93. She, not Graf, ruled the tour during that time, and this is why she was No. 1 and Graf was not. If Graf wasn't making enough finals to challenge Seles at the most important events (much less win those events), then that simply means that Graf, at the time, was not capable of rivaling Seles for supremacy of the tour. It's as simple as that.

It's not Seles's fault that Graf's day-in day-out game could not rival her own game on the tour during 91-93, just as it isn't Graf's fault that Seles got knifed and the whole scheme of thngs derailed.

That being said, I think the telling point is that, at the Australian Open in 1993, Graf played the tennis of her life--brilliant stuff--and still got spanked by Seles, 3 and 2 in the last two sets of their final. Not saying that Graf wouldn't have still had her fair share of wins against Seles, had the stars & planets been in better alignment for Monica's fate, but the dominant player of the tour in subsequent years would have remained Seles...based upon the pattern of their tour play.

Posted by Ianesco 12/12/2008 at 02:33 PM

And I should qualify that by saying the dominant tour player would most *likely* have remained Seles, based upon the evident pattern of their tour play. Most likely, not certain.

Posted by Griff 12/12/2008 at 03:22 PM

Of course Seles was dominant until the stabbing incident.Even the retarded German knew that.That's why he stabbed her.

Posted by Charles 12/12/2008 at 06:42 PM

Fascinating commentary on the H2H but there is another way to slice it...

1. Graf won their 3 meetings in 1989 when Seles was still coming of age

2. From 1990-93, when Seles was on full boil, Seles won 4 of 7

3. From 95 on Seles never recaptured her full form and Graf led 4 of 5 meetings.

In neither the first or third cases was Seles fully functioning. So the real comparison is the second period. In which Seles was ahead 4 matches to 3. That's still pretty close. But as has been pointed out by several here, Seles was winning just about everything in sight, and Graf was struggling... by her standards.

So I definitely do not see Graf dominating Seles during the period of 1990-93.

Nevertheless, there were indications that Graf was regaining momentum in 1993. I think she was beginning to mount a full scale attack on Seles. There were positive signs, like making the Aus Open final and taking Seles to 3 sets. I think after the demolition she gave Seles at Wimby in 92, her confidence was coming back. It's quite possible Graf would have prevailed at Roland Garros, and I don't think Seles could have won at Wimbledon.

As has been pointed out, Graf was not making the GS finals during the initial period of Seles dominance. However by the end of AUS 93 she had made 3 of the last 4 and it looked like a battle royal was brewing for the top. As it turned out, after Seles was stabbed, Graf's momentum carried her to 4 straight GS titles. She might not have won these if Seles was playing, but you never know, it might not have changed the final results...

Interestingly, when Seles came back in 95. She appeared to be picking up right where she left off. She marched thru the Cdn open with out a loss and continued right to the final of the US Open. Seles narrowly lost. Graf just squeaked out a win there, eking out the first set 8-6 in the first set tiebreak, before getting demolished 6-0 in the second set, but righting the ship in time to take the 3rd. Seles then won the Aus open of 1996, taking her post-stabbing match record to 22-1, and it appeared that the rivalry was right where it had been in 1993. But then Seles losses started to mount and it became clear that she was not the player she once had been.

I suspect that had she not been stabbed, she would have copped a couple more GS in 1993-95, but I'm not sure that 1996 would have turned out any differently than it did. Monica had grown in both height and bone structure and it is questionable in my mind that she could ever have regained her youthful movement. It is the movement, I think, that most changed after 1995. She could always strike the ball well.

just my 2 cents...

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/12/2008 at 09:22 PM

I hate to say this, but all this speculation sounds a lot like a "woulda, coulda, shoulda" session.

Seles had taken the tour by storm, that is not in doubt. But Graf was not rolling over on her back, either. She wasn;t going to go away easily.

All we can do is go by the records they each posted, and in my book Graf comes out on top. More to the point, her record puts her at the pinnacle of all of tennis. To be honest, I'm not sure another five to eight years of a healthy Seles could have changed that fact.

Posted by Charles 12/12/2008 at 09:50 PM

SnD
I agree.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/12/2008 at 10:13 PM

Charles, my comment above was specifically NOT aimed at you. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful analysis.

And I really don't ever mean to be condescending or rude to anyone. Just that sometimes we can end up in these endless debates that cannot be resolved through any amount of logic or fact-checking.

And I should know... I've been in enough of them on this blog. lol

Posted by Atpwta 12/14/2008 at 09:44 PM

REPLY TO POSTER (OGNO) ... WAS SELES GREATER THAN STEFFI GRAF?


You mean Seles was 16, 17, 18 and 19 --- and Graf was 20, 21, 22 and 23 --- when Seles was the CLEAR #1 player in women's tennis in those years 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993? Yeah, she had a winning record vs. Graf in those years and she won 9 of the 11 biggest events in women's tennis between November 1990 and the stabbing?

In these 12 major events between the end of 1990 and the stabbing of Monica Seles in the first half of 1993 ...

Monica Seles:

• entered 11 of the 12 events.
• won 10 of the 12 events.
• reached the final round in 11 of the 12 events.

Steffi Graf:

• entered 11 of the 12 events.
• won 2 of the 12 events.
• reached the final round in 4 of the 12 events.
• lost in the semis or earlier in 8 of the 12 events.


Posted by Atp 12/14/2008 at 09:50 PM

REPLY to OGNO

Early 1990s before the stabbing .. Monica Seles dominated Steffi Graf .. Seles won the first 2 matches played vs. Graf in the 1990s and Seles won the last match that was played vs. Graf.

During the years 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993 both Monica Seles had a winning record vs. Steffi Graf.


1990-05-14
Berlin Clay - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 6-4 6-3


HERE is how far they were apart: MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

SELES WON________________GRAF WON

1990 WTA Tour Championships
1991 Australian Open
1991 French Open
_________________________ 1991 Wimbledon
1991 U.S. Open
1991 WTA Tour Championships
1992 Australian Open
1992 French Open
__________________________ 1992 Wimbledon
1992 U.S. Open
1992 WTA Tour Championships
1993 Australian Open

1990-05-28
Roland Garros Clay - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 7-6 6-4

1991-03-25
San Antonio Hardcourt - Winner Steffi Graf (GER) 6-4 6-3

1991-04-29
Hamburg Clay - Winner Steffi Graf (GER) 7-5 6-7 6-3

1992-05-25
Roland Garros Clay - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 6-2 3-6 10-8

1992-06-22
Wimbledon Grass - Winner Steffi Graf (GER) 6-2 6-1

1993-01-18
Australian Open Hardcourt - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 4-6 6-3 6-

Posted by atpwta 12/14/2008 at 09:52 PM

Early 1990s before the stabbing .. Monica Seles dominated Steffi Graf .. Seles won the first 2 matches played vs. Graf in the 1990s and Seles won the last match that was played vs. Graf.

During the years 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993 both Monica Seles had a winning record vs. Steffi Graf.

1990-05-14
Berlin Clay - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 6-4 6-3

1990-05-28
Roland Garros Clay - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 7-6 6-4

1991-03-25
San Antonio Hardcourt - Winner Steffi Graf (GER) 6-4 6-3

1991-04-29
Hamburg Clay - Winner Steffi Graf (GER) 7-5 6-7 6-3

1992-05-25
Roland Garros Clay - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 6-2 3-6 10-8

1992-06-22
Wimbledon Grass - Winner Steffi Graf (GER) 6-2 6-1

1993-01-18
Australian Open Hardcourt - Winner Monica Seles (USA) 4-6 6-3 6-


HERE is how far they were apart: MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

SELES WON________________GRAF WON

1990 WTA Tour Championships
1991 Australian Open
1991 French Open
_________________________ 1991 Wimbledon
1991 U.S. Open
1991 WTA Tour Championships
1992 Australian Open
1992 French Open
__________________________ 1992 Wimbledon
1992 U.S. Open
1992 WTA Tour Championships
1993 Australian Open

Posted by ogno 12/15/2008 at 02:56 AM


Seles can not forever blame all her missed opportunities on Graf.

For G's sake, Seles couldn't even beat Hingis, the puffball serve,

while a hobbling Graf made Hingis look like an idiot.

Posted by Rain 12/16/2008 at 06:58 AM

Here we go again...

Is Graf better than Seles? The answer is "yes" but for a certain period of time and that was 1989 backwards where Seles was a new and upcoming.

1990 up to the stabbing was clearly the period of Seles ascendancy to the top then she dominates. During this period, the only "significant" win of Graf against Seles was the 1992 Wimbledon whilst Seles defeated her at 3 Grandslams finals.

with that H2H, don't just count the loses vs wins but put into consideration the standing (seeding). That tells that most loses of Seles to Graf were in the early part of her young career...against then to No. 1 Graf.

To say that 1992 Wibledon win of Graf sparks her game back to winning is "false" because it was Seles who showed ferocity against everybody after that loss. Seles went on to capture 1992 US Open and Australian Open 1993 beating Graf there. No surprise at all for that 1992 W of Steffi as she consistently winning it prior to Year 1992 so there was no spark to consider.

It was true also that the reason why Seles stabbed by one of hopeless supporters of Graf was that Seles is better than Graf that time and the only way to stop Monica from winning and bring back Steffi to the top is to kill Seles.

a "peaking" 19 yrs old Seles has the bigger probability to win more slams than to an "aging" 23 yrs old Steffi based on statistics.

Posted by Rain 12/16/2008 at 09:06 AM

to add up to that dominance thing:

3 "consecutive" AO Crown and was the depending champ.
3 "consecutive" FO Crown and was the depending champ.
3 "consecutive" WTA Ending Cham'p. and was the depending champ.
2 "consecutive" USO Crown and was the depending champ.

Gaining edge at the the Wimbledon each year and reached the final in 1992.

IT HAPPENED DURING GRAF'S ERA !!!

How do you call it if not dominance?

Posted by Matt 12/16/2008 at 10:25 AM

Henin's game reminds me a little of Sabatini's

Posted by nost 12/17/2008 at 06:55 PM


i agree really, if you have a puffball serve at 80 mph

you don't deserve to be World No.1

go back to the practice courts, and make more drills

Hingis was really lucky to "squeak in" a few Slams

"squeak" is the exact word, as Graf had multiple injuries in 1997-98

and Monica Seles was not up to the task.

In that sense, Seles was a greater disappointment than Hingis.

Posted by Tsong 12/17/2008 at 06:59 PM


Reply to RAIN and "Atp"


you have conveniently ignored the fact

that Graf beat Seles

three times when Seles was ranked World No. 1 1991-92.

is that what you call dominance?

cultism blinds.

Posted by pamela 12/17/2008 at 08:32 PM


Had Graf not been injured in jan 1997, she would have been Number 1 for additional years, 1997 to 2000 or thereabouts, the time when Venus matured as a player.

that would have been an additional 10 slams or more for Graf. she would have surpassed Margaret Court's record.

Posted by cooper 12/17/2008 at 08:38 PM


Aside from RG 1992, the most painful losses for Graf were:

1992 Barcelona Olympics gold medal match against Capriati: it was a fluke win for Capriati, because Graf beat her the next 10 matches.

1999 Wimbledon final. Graf had 25% more clean winners than Davenport, had one breakpoint each set, but could not break Lindsay and lost in straight sets.

No wonder she lost appetite in tennis in the next 3 weeks, and retired abruptly in less than one month.

these losses were really painful for me as Graf's fan.

Posted by cooper 12/17/2008 at 08:59 PM


Head to Heads

Graf Seles 10-5

Graf Davenport 9-6

Graf Hingis 7-2

Graf Venus 3-2

Graf Serena 1-1

Graf Capriati 10-1

Posted by Rain 12/18/2008 at 03:47 AM

@ Tsong,

I did not ignore the wins of Graf over Seles. 1990-93 where the "real" competition between these 2 ladies are stiff and fierce, Seles vs. Graf is 4-3 that period. It is expected to have them close h2h since they are 1 and 2 respectively. But still Seles had the winning record over Graf. And if you look at those tournaments that Graf have won over Seles then you might even say that those are neglible as in *insignificant wins* and as I have said earlier the Wimbledon 1992 win of Graf against Seles is the only signifant one while Seles has defeated 3 times in Grandslams during this period---Try to twist this if you can. Slam is slam, teir is tier. Which event you want to win if I have to ask?

It is clearly that your difinition of DOMINANCE focused mainly on H2H which is just a portion of the whole picture. Need not to say but the whole picture is the entire tour and to win in as many events as possible.

Take the classic example of dominance at ATP. H2H of Rafa & Roger is 12-6 but Roger is undoubtedly the dominant player for simply having a winning edge against everybody else except Rafa. That's how a dominance is defined as far as myself is concerned.

With that said, H2H is entirely different to dominance thing. But the again, Seles was 4-3 against Graf and winning (ALL)most of the big ones.

As for Graf, 1990-93 she deserved her ranking as No. 2 only.

Posted by Kim 12/19/2008 at 09:17 PM

Tsong,

We can look at the available evidence and draw conclusions about what outcomes it points to. And the clear preponderance of the evidence does not point in the direction of Graf overtaking Seles.

Since Seles was clearly ahead of Graf at the time of the stabbing, the burden of proof is on the Graf fanatic supporters to explain why Graf would have been able to win slams over Seles (had the stabbing not occurred) that she hadn't been able to for the previous 3 years. So far, they have miserably failed to offer a compelling defense of that notion.

Posted by Kim 12/19/2008 at 09:21 PM

After the Aussie Open in 1990, the slam gap was 9-0 in favor of graf vs a very young Seles . Three years, it had closed to 11-8. The TREND is pretty clear.

Seles was clearly the superior and dominant plyer than graf in 91-93 and led 2-1 in Slam victories. She led 4-3 since 1990 in matches. play In stats terms winning 8 GS, 3 ye WTA champs she was a solid no. 1 in *absolute terms*.

Posted by pamela 12/22/2008 at 05:20 AM


THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME.

Let the facts speak.

Graf-Navratilova 10-10
Graf-Evert 8-6
Graf-Sabatini 29-11
Graf-Vicario 28-8
Graf-Seles 10-5
Graf-Capriati 10-1 (the fluke loss of the 1992 Olympic gold medal)
Graf-Davenport 9-6
Graf-Hingis 7-2
Graf-Venus 3-2
Graf-Serena 1-1

”You never defined yourself by what you achieved; rather, you achieved by how you defined yourself. You were never about the words, you were all about the action.”

-- The best lines in the history of all tennis.

Posted by Nancy J 12/29/2008 at 07:21 PM

Too bad you couldn't find a decent clip from the AO final (another match that I have in my personal collection), as Evert was rolling back time to give Graf a bit of a fight in that first set. But, Evert made the mistake of not practicing with the roof closed, which youngster Steffi had, and Evert fell apart with the break and changing condition. Still, Chris was the aging broad with a bad knee, recurrent heel spur, and 14.5 years older than Steffi. The final result was not in question, but still, the old broad hung in during that first set.

Posted by 01/05/2009 at 04:12 AM


Monica Seles could have won two Calendar Slams in 1997 and 1998.

well, she didn't.


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