Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Straight Outta Heidelberg
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Straight Outta Heidelberg 12/10/2008 - 2:19 PM

“In your face” was one of the mantras of the 1980s. This unsubtle era was bent on erasing all vestiges of the touchy-feely decades that had preceded it. The 80s gave us Mike Tyson, they gave us NWA, they voted Margaret Thatcher their MVP. You might have thought the ivory-towered world of tennis would have remained above this particular cultural fray, but you’d have been wrong. John McEnroe, the most in-your-face athlete of all, became the biggest name in the game just as the 80s began.

The trend didn’t end with Johnny Mac’s terrorization of the All England Club. The decade’s real legacy, as far as how the game is played, came four years later with the seismic shift toward power and explosive athleticism—in your face tennis was here, and it was here to stay. What now seems odd, at least to me, is that the earliest harbingers of this transformation were two teenagers, Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, who had grown up at the same time and in the same obscure place, the suburbs of Heidelberg, West Germany. What was in the water over there?

Two Germans at once; two Belgian women at once; three Serbs at once—is there any explanation for tennis’ seemingly random nationalistic surges? West Germany hadn’t had a No. 1 player on either tour during the Open era. Then, within about 24 months, they produced two players who would change the sport forever. Graf and Becker had even practiced together as kids. “I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls,” Becker said of Graf, “and I all the time had to hit with her.” They taught each other something special.

I’ll talk more about the long-term influence of these two, who remain among my favorite players to watch, even in the tiny snippets available on You Tube. For today let’s begin where each of them began, at Wimbledon, in 1984 (Graf, in the clip above) and 1985 (Becker, in the clip below).

—Graf was, to put it mildly, all legs at 15. She already had her supremely focused back-and-forth sway as she waited to return serve, as if she couldn’t wait to prove her opponent’s shot wrong.

—Love the Brit announcers again, this time anchored by Dan Maskell. After so many parodies of their sports commentators (particularly on the Simpsons), I have to remind myself this is a real match, not a comic skit.

—How easily Graf skips on her toes as Jo Durie tosses the ball to serve. Did Graf have the best split-step in tennis history? She got so high you could have called it a “split-jump.”

—Graf to me seems to me the quintessential young player here: Hiding her face under her hair, keeping her head down, but also giving tiny fist-pumps after winning points. She's the picture of shy determination. Isn’t that what good tennis is all about?

—She instinctively shortens her forehand backswing for her return, not something that’s necessarily teachable. And Graf is successful coming over her backhand, a shot that would always trouble her.

—The Dunlop Max 200g. A beautiful and influential racquet. Heavy as hell, too.

—Did Graf already have a watch sponsor?

—Even at 15, she isn’t happy to have played well and lost. Graf is enraged instead, and she gives Durie an early sample of the blink-and-you-missed-it handshake that would irritate Martina Navratilova in the coming years. Then Steffi sets the record for the quickest curtsey to the royal box in Wimbledon history. Right from the beginning, her cold resolve masked deep emotion. That combination is also where most good tennis comes from.

—Maskell at the end: “We’ll see her again, no doubt about that.”

Graf made the fourth round of Wimbledon at 15, but Becker one-upped his countrywoman the next year by winning the whole thing. Above are highlights from the final, a four-set win over Kevin Curren.

—Has there ever been a tennis player who came out of the gates so fully formed? Only Rafael Nadal at the 2005 French Open comes close. Like Nadal, Becker’s 1985 run had the air of destiny. Violent destiny. Becker was 17; Nadal 18.

—With that bowl cut, Becker looks every bit the teen. Tennis really does favor the young, the very young. I’ve often wondered: Does that mean that, after all the talk of tactics, it’s a mindless game at bottom, one based on raw physical gifts? Or is it just that having a young mind, not clouded by doubt, helps? Whichever it is, Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon run is still tennis’ greatest tribute to the wide-eyed spirit of youth.

—This was the ornery Curren’s 15 minutes in the sun. Most famous quote: After losing early at Flushing Meadows later that year, he said the “USTA should be shot” and an “A-bomb” should be dropped on New York City.

—Did Becker already have a watch deal? Or were watches just a German 80s teen thing?

—Like Nadal, Becker wasn’t just fully formed as a player, but as a performer as well. He dove, he stared his older opponents down, he had at least two varieties of fist-pump, and best of all he finished the final with a little quick-legged strut forward. In two weeks, he had made the game not only more explosive, but more demonstrative.

—In these clips you see how good Becker’s return was. These were the low-bounce days of grass, and he was still able to come over his backhand and rifle return winners. Like Graf, he had a big-shot game from the start—big serve, opportunistic return, heavy forehand, all-court skill—which made him dangerous in any important match. Becker was 38-3 in Davis Cup singles, for example. He wouldn’t become a consistent No. 1 like Graf, but he would always be a money player. In the fourth set in this final, Becker broke Curren in the opening game and then held five straight times for the title.

—The sad side to this is that Becker would never top these two weeks in 1985—how could he? That seemed to wear on his psyche, to turn it darker than we might have expected, as the years went on.

More on the Heidelberg twins tomorrow.


Posted by SwissMaestro 12/10/2008 at 02:33 PM

Heidelberg??? That's the college I attended in Tiffin, Ohio, that is so funny!

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/10/2008 at 02:35 PM

Yes, Steve, I think you're right. Steffi and Boris really brought in the modern, supremely athletic, power games that we see today.

Funny, though, as much as I loved watching Becker play, I never could warm up to him quite the same way I could Miss Graf. I was thrilled when Edberg beat him in the Wimbledon final of 1988(?). In contrast, I was always happy for Steffi, none more so than when she won her last French crown over Hingis in 1996(?).

(Feel free to correct my dates -- I ain't no walkin' almanac, that's fo' sho'!)

Posted by Master Ace 12/10/2008 at 02:50 PM

Graf won her last French Open(22nd and final Slam) over Hingis in 1999. Correct on Edberg winning in 1988(1990 also).

What I remember most about Steffi was that most of her matches were over in less than an hour and her Golden Slam won in 1988.

Posted by SwissMaestro 12/10/2008 at 02:53 PM

That golden slam in 1988 by Graff remains (to me) the best season a single player (man or woman) has ever had, yes, even better than that of Rod Laver in 1969 as he won the slam playing on 'only' 2 surfaces and he did not get an olympic gold.

Posted by Blake 12/10/2008 at 02:56 PM

Graf's French victory came in 1999. By that time, she was a fan favorite. While Becker was well-received by the public, he never quite captured their imagination like Graf, especially in her later years.

Posted by pc 12/10/2008 at 03:44 PM

Additionaly, none of my friends think Stefi is cute. Or hot.

And yet I always have.

Must be a tennis thing.

Posted by SwissMaestro 12/10/2008 at 03:57 PM


I do think she is.

Posted by Blake 12/10/2008 at 04:11 PM

Laver won tournaments on clay, carpet, grass and outdoor hard in 1969, but as mentioned, the Slam only included clay and grass. In fact, I believe the French was the only clay court tournament that Laver played (and won) that year. He won 18 singles titles, compared to Graf's 11, but Graf played in a more competitive era. It's hard to compare their seasons, and people on both sides can make convincing arguments.

Posted by Ryan 12/10/2008 at 04:21 PM

Whew. Only 15, and she makes it that far, but most impressively, it took a helluva match by Durie to beat her. The sign of great things to come.

Then again, I recall that Chris Evert beat Monica Seles 0 and 2 in the '89(?) US Open, and we know how well Monica fared.

Posted by SLice-n-Dice 12/10/2008 at 04:43 PM

pc, I'm with you. Just looking at the clip above takes me back. She was one cute kid at 15, and by the time she jit 19 she was one hott number. The best pair of legs on a woman I've ever seen -- for form and function.

And thanks guys for correcting my dates. I'm horrible with dates (always hated middle school history for that reason, too). But yes, that victory over Hingis was sweet. Even though I did feel a tinge of sadness for Martina, too. It was the only time I can recall a player really losing control out there, aside from McEnroe's and Tarango's outbursts.

Posted by Lob 12/10/2008 at 05:28 PM

"She instinctively shortens her forehand backswing for her return, not something that’s necessarily teachable."

Really? A decent coach can make it very teachable.

Posted by C Note 12/10/2008 at 06:40 PM

Thanks so much for this, Steve! Steffi's my all time fave so I look forward to this series.

Posted by Pspace 12/10/2008 at 06:42 PM

Looking at the Steffi video above...I wonder how good she would have been with a more conventional backhand, i.e., biased to topspin instead of slice. Prolly the secret to success at Wimby pre 2001. In any case, a little luxilon might've helped her convert on those break point passing shot opportunities.

Posted by Volley 12/10/2008 at 07:41 PM

Nice point, Lob. It's a bit of a reach to state that a shortened backswing can't be learned on the return of serve. There are plenty of drills that help a player work on it.

Here's another reach:

"The sad side to this is that Becker would never top these two weeks in 1985—how could he? That seemed to wear on his psyche, to turn it darker than we might have expected, as the years went on."

Wow. That's some serious armchair psychoanalysis.

Posted by Avec Double Cordage 12/10/2008 at 09:41 PM

thanx for the Steffi Graf clip, I don't think Steffi ever had serious problems with her topspin back hand, she just did not need it anymore after Martina Navratilova was gone, cuz there was nobody left that would come to the net that she could pass, so the slice was a much more safe shot to use and by running around the back hand and hitting a forehand she had a more powerful shot as well, that she could use since her set of wheels was so superior, if only Seles hadn't been stabbed it could have been a great rivalry

I love the Fisher superform that Jo Durie, has my neighbour had one when I was a kid

I literally started tennis an hour after seeing Becker win the Wimbledon 1985 title, I had a sponge ball and a plastic beach racket and started with that on the back of the house against a wall, I was only a kid but that was it for me, tennis has remained my favorite sport ever since

I think the name behind Becker and Graf is Boris Breskvar a coach from Yugoslavia, who was training the kids at a regional tennis center of the German federation, he taught Becker his serve

then the Romanian Guenther Bosch might have completed Beckers game, he actually made it to the 3rd round already in 1984 only 16 years old, and was only stopped by serious injury at an ankle I think

for me 1985 is the real start of modern tennis, since Becker added so much more power and aggression to Lendl's gym shaped power game, I would say Lendl started it with his athleticism achieved through hard training in the gym and strictly planned nutrition, Becker gave Tennis its modern shape and Agassi made the most important addition to what Becker had brought to the court, the extreme baseline anticipation

every modern player is a mix out of these three players Lendl - Becker - Agassi

I wouldn't say Becker never reached the 1985 level again, when he won the following year against Lendl that was equally important, also the win at the Asutralian Open when he reached the number one spot was a top notch moment, the deconstruction of Edberg including a bagel at the Wimbledon final 1989 was a huge win, the win at the US Open, and the many master titles and important Davis Cup matches were also very important moments.

His only problem was that in his later years he started to be too heavy for the game, and his mobility suffered from the power that his muscles gave him, perhaps that's why he was so successful when he was younger and lighter, plus he had great rivals later on with Edberg, Sampars, Agassi, Ivanisevic and Courier.
Only Sampras was able to beat all of them, perhaps because he was a physically lighter player without losing any explosiveness, that should be good news for Federer who is also lighter than Nadal, but Murray and Djokovic are so as well plus they are way younger than Roger. I think Nadal like Becker could decline once he is 25 or so, I don't think the others will do the same.

Posted by skip1515 12/10/2008 at 09:59 PM

Jo Durie. That beginning to her service motion, with her arms apart, is surely one of the most idiosyncratic quirks since Francoise Durr.

Hmm, is there something in the surname that breeds quirks?

Posted by Marcel in Montreal 12/10/2008 at 10:08 PM

Avec double cordage - quel joli nom - felicitations.
Aussi, pour la sagesse de tes commentaires.

Posted by Oslo Erik 12/11/2008 at 02:11 AM

As a European from the 80's and now a coach, I can assure you: teens used to wear watches, and now virtually none do unless they are paid to. I got a watch for my 13th birthday (most got them at 10 or 13) and it was a big symbol of independence. It was like "now you can go out on your own, but you have to be back by a certain time". Now you get a cell phone at 10 and never have use for a wrist watch. I think many players used to wear watches. I still do on court (although I'm old and not professional).

As for the Germans, I hadn't realized they were from the same region. Graf's fire-and-ice competitive nature really is one of a kind. Venus Williams is the closest I can think of, the remaining reserved all the time but fiercely angry at the same time.

Posted by rg.nadal 12/11/2008 at 04:44 AM

Graf the greatest. There would not be a player like her.

Posted by richie 12/11/2008 at 06:35 AM

Steve - The clips clearly show some of Graf's outstanding traits, even at 15 - very competitive, very athletic, a lot of energy, terrific forehand and serve. It was interesting that Durie had to remind Graf to bow to the Royal Box on the way out.

Posted by Avec Double Cordage 12/11/2008 at 07:00 AM

@Marcel in Montreal
Merci! Cliquez sur mon nom pour beaucoup plus

Posted by Blake 12/11/2008 at 09:43 AM

What's so remarkable about Graf's success is that her game is hardly textbook. In fact, she had so many quirks in her strokes and her strategy that only someone with remarkable will and athletic ability could make it work. Her serve had the slightest hitch, robbing her of a few miles/hr., and her toss was ridiculously high. The forehand was struck late, and at times, her slice backhand was used as a rallying tool without much sting. With repetition, she mastered these unorthodox strokes. It's an amazing testament to her strength, physically and emotionally, that she overcame these "flaws".

Posted by Steve 12/11/2008 at 10:24 AM

lob, if that is your real name (jon? david?), maybe it was just hard for me, once i had my ground stroke backswing set. i know it took a lot of practice to shorten it. graf seems to have an instinct for returning against a serve and volleyer even at 15.

Posted by michele 12/11/2008 at 10:42 AM

Looking back I can appreciate Becker's influence and achivements in the game; however, I distinctly remember hating his arrogance. In his post-interview after that Wimbledon win in '85, he was asked what would happen if he never won again. His reply (insert steely German accent here): "Impossible."

Plus I can't help but judge players on the legacy they create off the court, and his is just, well, embarrassing.

Posted by HK 12/11/2008 at 12:58 PM

I also didn't like Becker (or Agassi) early on simply for his arrogant attitude. I remember Becker said in those days that he never lost to the same player twice. Of course, that myth was busted quite quickly. He was quite frustrated when Lendl beat him in straight sets in the Masters cup final in 86 (85?). But, anyway, I warmed up a lot to Becker (and Agassi) later in his career when his attitude was much more respectful to his fellow players. My appreciation of Nadal took a similar arc but in a much shorter time. When I first saw Nadal, his over the top fist pumps and on court physical behavior seemed to reek of arrogance. However, very quickly I realized that he had a stellar attitude and his on court mannerisms were simply a way to drive himself on court. Now, it is always pleasing to see Nadal succeed although I may sometimes root for his opponent.

My feeling is that Becker and Agassi's attitudes early on impeded their careers. A notion that they were superior to the rest was important to their success on the court. When that notion was challenged in their own heads, by Lendl and Edberg in Becker's case and by Sampras in Agassi's case, it took them a while to deal with this. To their credit, they are both highly intelligent and were capable of the introspection needed to change to a more stable attitude about competition revolving around giving their best every time they step on the court. Agassi in particular was extremely impressive in this regard. However, the journey of growth as persons that Becker and Agassi took over their careers probably limited the heights to which their careers could have reached based purely on talent and athleticism. They both had wild swings in their motivation and commitment. I often wonder if Djokovic will suffer from the same problem.

Posted by Viv 12/20/2008 at 05:48 PM

I too have to take issue with your opinion that the sad side to Beckers' maiden Wimbledon title victory was that he was never able to top that achievement. Perhaps no other victory of his was as historic or explosive. But as others have stated, there were many other significant and memorable major wins over the course of his career.

That southwest corner of Germany also produced another female Grand Slam finalist, Anke Huber. She, like Becker and Graf, was coached at one stage by Boris Breskvar.

Posted by Nancy J 12/29/2008 at 07:24 PM

Graf is still all legs even today! One thing I've noticed, Graf has the longest fingers I've ever seen on a woman, and huge feet. But "Da Forehand" could fly on those big feet, and work those large hands.

Posted by johanna gott 02/14/2009 at 04:31 PM

I always thought Steffi was the greatest female player ever. Mental ability along with superb athleticism, , good eyes (I think you need those), and should I say - good genes? and fierce desire to win, of course, determination

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