Wednesday 8 October 2014


Growing up I saw many of my cousins rooting for their famous tennis star. Here, I am talking strictly about ladies tennis. One cousin remarked at the play of Gabriela Sabatini, the other for Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and some even for Martina Navratilova. What do I remember from those days? I spent a lot of time with my cousin who disliked Steffi Graf - because she used to win a lot!
The frustrating season happened to be the season of 1993. I supported my cousin and started to root for any player but Graf. Back then, I did not have any favourites and among the players that were on the circuit - Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Mary Joe Fernandez, Conchita Martinez, Jennifer Capriati, Jana Novotna, Mary Pierce, Anke Huber, Amanda Coetzer and Helena Sukova. And none became my favourite.

I remember the 1993 season opener which saw Monica Seles defeating Steffi Graf to take the Australian Open. There was a division between our cousins, a healthy one and I did not know what was happening.

The much anticipated rivalry in women's tennis - Graf vs. Seles  

If there was any reason one of cousins started to hate Steffi Graf, it was the incident of Monica Seles getting stabbed with a 9-inch long knife. It was Hamburg on April 30 during a quarter-final match between Magdalena Maleeva; Seles ranked #1 was leading 6-4, 4-3 and looked good for a victory. Günter Parche, an obsessed Graf fan ran to Seles in between the serve breaks and stabbed between her shoulder blades. She was rushed to the hospital and Seles was out of tennis circuit for a good two years. Was it politically motivated (after the Yugoslavian split), was it intentional by Steffi Graf fans? Not sure. All it was later reported - that Günter was mentally unstable and was not jailed because he was found to be 'psychologically abnormal' and he was sent for psychological treatment. Just when I had found interest in supporting a tennis player, she was out of the circuit. She made a comeback two years later - but it was never the same again.

Monica Seles stabbed by Günter Parche (right)

The story of Monica Seles influenced me not to support Steffi Graf, moving forward. It seems silly - it was a strong feeling back then with my cousin and I looked up to him for more tennis insights. Steffi Graf won the French Open against Mary Joe Fernandez after having lost the first set. The German ace won the Wimbledon against Jana Novotna in spite of losing the second set 1-6 and a hard fought tie-breaker in the first set. With little opposition on the circuit, Steffi Graf finished the year winning the US Open against Helena Sukova in straight sets.

Jana Novotna being consoled after losing to Graf at Wimbledon 1993 

It was disheartening for Monica Seles fans to watch Steffi Graf win these titles back-to-back against easy opponents. While my cousin expressed his disappointments once in a while, I was still in search of my favourite lady tennis player. Luckily, my other favourite was Pete Sampras and he started to perform consistently and stayed away from major injuries!  

After winning three years in a row, the champion Monica Seles was not to take part at the 1994 Australian Open. Any guesses, who won the title? It was Graf again - she had it easy over Sanchez Vicario winning in straight sets. Then came the joy period for my cousin and I. Steffi Graf losing to Mary Pierce at the French Open semi-finals and biggest smile arrived on our face when Lori McNeil managed to knock out Graf in the first round of the Wimbledon. At the 1994 US Open, it was the time for Sanchez Vicario to pull one victory over Graf. For anyone other than Graf fans, 1994 was a pretty good year!

Steffi Graf did not take part in the 1995 Australian Open and we were happy to hear - that she would not be winning the title! The title was won by Mary Pierce. A 14-year old happened to make her Grand Slam debut and she wins her first round match against Jolene Watanabe - thereby becoming the youngest player to win a Grand slam match. She could not make it beyond the second round. Honestly, I did not notice this player then!

Teen prodigy Martina Hingis 

Steffi Graf was back in action and won the French Open against Sanchez Vicario two sets to one. It was a re-match between these two champs in Wimbledon and Steffi Graf proved a bit too strong for Sanchez Vicario.

1995 US Open and the tournament saw the emergence of rivalry which had ended two years ago prematurely. Monica Seles now appeared like a shadow of her previous self reached the finals and had a point to prove against Steffi Graf. Seles was now a US citizen and the crowd favourite. Graf won the first set and Seles fought back winning the second set 6-0. In anticipation of a miraculous comeback, it was clear who the crowd wanted to win that night. Alas! Graf proved to be a spoilsport, ends up winning the third set and the match, the title and what not!

After watching three seasons of tennis, I was still in search of my favourite player in the ladies circuit - one who would complement Pete Sampras. Having just entered double-digits in age, having favourite players was a top priority.

Steffi Graf did not take part at the 1996 Australian Open. After a gap of three years, Monica Seles took the title - her ninth and also turned out to be her final grand slam singles victory. Graf stamps her authority in the next three Grand Slams - winning all the three. The finals of the US Open 1996 was also the last time the world saw this short-lived rivalry of Seles and Graf. Seles was a better player than most other players on the circuit - but her best days were behind her.

Only if Seles was not stabbed - how well this rivalry would have shaped up? 

The year 1995 saw the emergence of Martina Hingis - the teenage sensation from Switzerland. She took the tennis world by surprise; with victories against experienced opponents, she progressed till the fourth end at the US Open. Not bad for a 14-year old.

Martina Hingis - taking strides forwards
Next year was only a step forward for this child prodigy. I was eleven years old and she was fourteen and it did not take too long for me to be a big fan... wait, biggest fan of hers. Coming from India in the 1990's with no internet and with cable television just warming up - it was a big deal to follow a player religiously - especially for a non-cricket sport.

Her performances in 1996 appeared frequently on the pages of  'Sport star' - a weekly magazine which I was a subscriber. She had reached the quarter-finals in Australia; third round at Roland Garros; fourth round at Wimbledon and semi-finals at the Flushing Meadows, New York. It was interesting to note - that both in Wimbledon and US Open, she was beaten by Steffi Graf. 

She had won her first WTA title at Filderstadt, Germany. The icing on the cake was her victory at Wimbledon's doubles partnering Helena Sukova - a feat which made her the youngest doubles winner in the history of women's tennis and the youngest Grand Slam winner in the Open era.

Wimbledon doubles title 1996 with Helena Sukova 

If 1995 was about winning the Rookie of the year, 1996 was about winning titles and progressing further. She finished second at the season conclusion WTA finals losing again to Steffi Graf in a thrilling five-setter.

Losing to Graf at the 1996 WTA finals 

For the first time in my life, my days to have a favourite player among men and ladies had finally arrived. I could boast now to my sports-geek friends whenever they asked my favourite tennis players. With a smile, I used to say - Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis!