Sport: For Steffi Graf, an Open Slam Dunk

The West German teenager captures the rarest of laurels

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The accomplishment was very nearly nonpareil. To put the grand slam of tennis in perspective, it is far rarer than either baseball's (16) or horse racing's (eleven) triple crowns. The recent demigods, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King among them have 47 major tournament victories, but none managed that perfect dominance over their rivals and the calendar. Only four other tennis players, male and female, belong in this most exclusive of tennis clubs: Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly (1953), Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) and Margaret Court (1970). On Saturday Steffi Graf of West Germany joined that short list, after momentary jitters, with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Argentine Gabriela Sabatini in the U.S. Open final.

Graf, 19, secured her place on the plaque with a style drawn more from Clausewitz than Connolly or Court. She dropped only two sets in the course of her conquest. In the first act, the Australian Open in January, she sent Evert down under 6-1, 7-6. In Paris in June, she pulverized Soviet Natalia Zvereva 6-0, 6-0, the only double bagel ever in a French Open singles final and the first in a grand-slam final since 1911. The walkover took all of 32 minutes on the soft, molasses-slow red clay. During the award ceremony, when the centurion had metamorphosed back into an unaffected teenage millionaire, Graf meekly apologized to the crowd, "I'm very sorry it was so fast."

Her first test came in July during the Wimbledon finals. Navratilova, the woman Graf dethroned as No. 1, sees the All England Club's greenswards as a personal fief, and she won the opening set. For a moment it looked as though the 31-year-old Navratilova would gain a distinction long coveted -- a record ninth Wimbledon singles title, one more than Helen Wills Moody won back in the 1920s and '30s. Martina punched the air in anticipation. But silently the skies turned from summer sun to North Atlantic squall, and Steffi simply and unceremoniously broke the veteran's serve again and again. When the carpet bombing from Graf's forehand was over, the score was 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, and a tournament official had to show the slightly abashed young woman how to hold the trophy for the crowd.

By the time the U.S. Open came around, scarcely anyone doubted that Graf would romp. Her task was made even easier when Navratilova exited prematurely in the quarterfinals after a fabulous seesawing bout, probably the fortnight's best, with Zina Garrison. It was a particularly melancholy end for Navratilova, who during 1983-84 won six consecutive majors and contends that she too has won the slam. Few, however, agree: the slam, like all classic stories, must adhere to certain unities of time and space, the calendar year being one of them.

Unconcerned by such questions, Graf blew through the tournament. The always formidable challenge of a semi-final appointment with Evert evaporated when the American caught a stomach flu and had to default. Then came the meeting with Sabatini, who had beaten Graf twice so far this year -- the only person to do so. But not this time. Graf was uneven -- "In the second set, I was not so tough" -- but finished overwhelmingly. When the Open was finally closed, Graf had lost just 23 games in six matches. That was all the more restful for Graf, who is off to Seoul to collect a gold medal in the newly reinstated Olympic event of tennis, a victory that would complete an even grander slam.