Commentary

Graf's "Golden Slam" arguably the greatest season in history

Pete Sampras led a quartet of American players who would all leave an indelible mark. But the third decade of the Open era was highlighted by a thoroughly dominating Steffi Graf, writes Joel Drucker.

Originally Published: October 16, 2008
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

Steffi GrafAlex Livesey/Getty ImagesSteffi Graf's peerless 1988 season, winning all four Grand Slam titles and the Olympics, kick-started a golden age of tennis.
Key moments of the Open era: Part 3: New World Empire (1988-97)

1. America's greatest generation
Just when it seemed there were no great American men to follow Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, four sensational prodigies emerged -- Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras. They'd each leave distinctive marks, fight hard with one another all over the world, build Hall of Fame careers and between them win 27 Grand Slam singles titles. Three of them would become No. 1 in the world -- the first being the diligent and surprising Courier. The understated Sampras would be the most successful, snapping up 14 of those majors. The charismatic Agassi would be the most popular, transforming himself from a boy of image to a man of substance. And Chang himself would command a fortnight in a way no one would dare imagine.

2. Graf's Golden Slam just another chapter in her epic
A superb forehand, Olympic-level foot speed and a tremendous work ethic made Steffi Graf an exemplary champion. As Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova's careers wound down, Graf didn't just march to the top -- she sprinted. In 1988, at 19, Graf thoroughly dominated every one of the year's majors, sweeping all four with convincing displays of power, movement and the ability to repeatedly take all the big points. Shortly after becoming only the third woman in tennis history to win all four majors in a single calendar year, Graf added one more jewel -- an Olympic gold medal. Just over a decade later, she'd cap her career with a surprising sentimental run to the 1999 French Open title. The men's winner that year: Andre Agassi. Though not quite soon enough to be a "Love Double," a la the Evert-Connors Wimbledon win of 1974, by the end of that summer Graf and Agassi's romance was well under way.

3. Free man in Paris
Not since Tony Trabert in 1955 had an American man won the singles title at Roland Garros. Michael Chang was merely 17, but over the course of two weeks he staggered the world with an incredible display of tenacity and consistency. The cornerstone win: a comeback from two sets to love down versus No. 1 seed Ivan Lendl in the round of 16. Chang would always believe his run in Paris was linked to events in his ancestral homeland of China, specifically the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Those inside the lines believe the credit was strictly his. It had also been nearly five years since an American male had won a Grand Slam singles title. As his lifelong rival Jim Courier put it, "Michael kicked open the door and showed us we had the goods to win big."

40 years of the Open era

Since 1968, tennis has truly been open -- to pros and amateurs alike. In our weeklong series, we take a look at the key moments in each of the four decades of the Open era.

Monday
• Ford: The era changed tennis
• Bodo: The key figures
Tuesday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1968-77
• Watch: Bud on 1968-77 Wednesday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1978-87
• Watch: Debating 1978-87
Thursday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1988-97
• Watch: Debating 1988-97
Friday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1998-today
• Watch: Debating 1998-today
• The Open Book gallery
• Bodo: Forgotten moments

4. The sister from another planet
The rough-and-tumble streets of Compton, Calif. were hardly a place you'd associate with tennis. But Richard Williams had a dream, fueled by his own blend of tenacity, ambition and, yes, greed: have a daughter who'd be a champion tennis player. So it was that in 1994, 14-year-old Venus Williams turned pro. Somewhat raw, her foot speed and love of the spotlight were vivid. Three years later, she played her first U.S. Open. In the semis, down match point versus Irina Spirlea, Williams struck a superb backhand down-the-line winner, going on to take the match before losing in the final to Martina Hingis. It was an unforgettable debut.

5. Requiem for a heavyweight
There had been other U.S. Opens where there was more at stake for Jimmy Connors, years like '76 and '78 where he felt the fate of his tennis life hung in the balance. But in 1990, the five-time champion had missed his first U.S. Open in 20 years. Leaving the grounds that year, he vowed, "If I ever get back there, that place is going to rock and roll." And rock it he did. Connors' 1991 run to the U.S. Open semis at the age of 39 was a powerful requiem for the grandest of heavyweights. Everything that the U.S. Open continues to promote -- high energy, intensity, lively crowds and over-the-top competition -- was summoned from the ground over those two weeks (and 20 years) by Connors' compelling all-court tennis and unmatched willpower.

[+] EnlargeMartina Hingis
Al Bello/Getty ImagesMartina Hingis' eclectic, guileful game drove opposing players crazy, especially in 1997 when she won three Grand Slams.
6. Meet the new Martina
Named in honor of Navratilova, Martina Hingis was taught to play by her mother, Melanie Molitor, a fine Czech player. As a child, Hingis was not just instructed in the fundamentals but also built a superb court sense -- the ability to grasp the geometry of the game and the intellect to build a playing style predicated less on power and more on variety. Her keen mind and eclectic playing style made her a tennis connoisseur's delight. Over the course of an incredible 1997 season, Hingis captivated fans all over the world with all-court prowess, winning three Grand Slam titles and reaching the top of the game at the age of 16.

7. The boy from Brazil
Never before had tennis seen someone like Gustavo Kuerten. Ranked just 66th in the world coming into the 1997 French Open, the Brazilian played with passion -- and precision. His puffy head of curls, distinctive colorful outfits and sizzling one-handed backhand thrilled the crowds as he swept his way to the title that year. A star was born instantly -- "Guga," who in time would take two more French titles, and in 2000 become the only South American to date to finish the year ranked No. 1 in the world.

8. A violent day in Hamburg
One minute she was the world's No. 1 player, competing in the quarterfinals of a tournament in Hamburg, sitting down on a changeover. The next minute Monica Seles had been stabbed in the back by Gunter Parche, a German fan determined to see Steffi Graf back atop the world rankings. Seles screamed, blood running down her back. Though the injuries would prove superficial -- at least physically -- Seles' raw confidence had been shattered. She would take more than two years to return, during which time Graf would indeed make it back to the top, and Parche would be acquitted of attempted murder and only receive a suspended sentence. Though Seles' 1995 comeback was highlighted by a run to the U.S. Open final and a win at the 1996 Australian Open, never again did she compete with her previous fervor.

9. Arthur Ashe Stadium as big as it gets
The USTA seized an opportunity when it took steps to dramatically upgrade the USTA National Tennis Center. Less than 20 years after leaving patrician Forest Hills for Flushing Meadows, new courts, new buildings and most of all, a new stadium ushered in yet another era of high-grade tennis facilities. With more than 23,000 seats, the new stadium would be the biggest in all of tennis. What name should adorn it? Corporate sponsorship would likely generate a six-figure deal. But the USTA took a bold step, eschewing corporate money and instead honoring one of tennis' few crossover cultural icons: Arthur Ashe, winner of the first U.S. Open in 1968 and, even more notably, known throughout the world as an athlete willing to speak his mind on social issues. So it was Arthur Ashe Stadium opening in 1997 in a grand ceremony hosted by John McEnroe and attended by dozens of tennis legends. Ashe had died in 1993, but his words linger, engraved at the US Open: From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life. Few had given more to tennis than Arthur Ashe.

10. The new ATP
Throughout the '80s the pro game was still heavily fractured, with tournament directors, players, agents and exhibition promoters conducting disparate events that often conflicted with one another. But in 1990, the ATP realigned itself, creating a partnership between players and tournament directors designed to better streamline the circuit and, most of all, ensure deeper player fields across a specific spectrum of tournaments. Though the kinks continue to be worked out, one significant accomplishment was the creation of the "Super Nine" -- nine major tournaments that would be guaranteed to be comprised of all of the top 50 players. The success of these events provided a strong framework for everything from first-rate competition to sustained worldwide television coverage.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.