Beauty outside, beast inside: The Steffi Graf paradox

The other day, I watched highlights of the Australian Open women’s singles final of 1993, featuring Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.  From a set down, Seles gradually took total control of the match and romped home in what was a very one sided third set.  Towards the end, Graf can be seen shaking her head in acute disappointment and berating herself loudly as both of her signature shots, the forehand and the slice backhand, began to sail way wide/long.  Seles had tired Graf out in the 90 odd minute encounter played in searing heat.  That’s right – Graf, who looks as fit and athletic as ever at least going by the footage, was simply gassed by the third set and surrendered against an unyielding and determined Seles.  Trying to understand why the first tennis player I ever liked lost out in high profile encounters with Seles in the early 90s has led me to believe that Graf is perhaps a paradox.

The first time I ever got upset to learn that a tennis player had lost was when Graf lost to Mary Pierce in the 1994 French Open.  I would later come to admire the sheer free swinging audacity with which Pierce blew Graf off the court but that was much later.  As a school kid, I was then an ardent Graf fan.  Also of Sampras but that happened a bit later.   Even many years later, when I looked back on footage of Graf in her prime, I marvelled at her beautiful footwork as well as delectable groundstrokes.  She was a purist’s delight and indeed many who watched women’s tennis in the 90s lamented the domination of power over elegance in the women’s game from the noughties onwards.

Then, a few years back, I started playing the game that I had followed closely from the comfort of the couch for so long. By and by, I began to have startling revelations including that Rafael Nadal’s forehand isn’t really all that different from Roger Federer’s, at least not to the extent that ardent Federer fanboys and Nadal detractors may want to believe.  But the things I learnt which I found most uncomfortable to digest were about Graf’s game.

People have sometimes asked if Federer is a bit like Graf because aesthetically there are some similarities (though she came over the backhand a lot less than Federer even on her best days).  However, the similarities stop there…at the aesthetic surface.  Consider how Federer was able to turn around his match up with the younger Nadal this year and beat him three straight times on hard court, including at the Australian Open final.  People talked about how he improved his backhand a lot, right?

And that’s the rub right there. If fixing something involved making significant changes to her game, Graf would not do it easily.  Sample her response after the aforesaid Australian Open defeat to Seles, “I don’t have to look for it (a different game plan) but I will try different things – probably”.  As this Independent article from which I borrowed the quote notes, the answer reveals how her instinctive response that she needed to change something to beat Seles wrestled with her equally instinctive obdurate resistance to change a game that she, in essence, thought was good enough.  “I don’t HAVE to change it”.

This obduracy extends also to the dynamic range of her strokes…or rather the lack thereof.  Graf pummeled every forehand and also tried to hit every slice as deep as possible.  At 2:00 in this highlights clip of the Aussie Open final, you will see Graf pulled out of court by Seles but getting there with her amazing footwork and hitting a slice.  AND she chooses to go cross court and deep even though DTL is open and Seles is parked on the baseline.  Not surprisingly, Seles says thank you very much and hits a forehand winner down the line!

Where Graf was poetry on the outside and robotic on the inside (as in tactically), Seles boasted ugly albeit efficient groundstrokes along with a great tennis mind and repeatedly went behind Graf.  She would also pin Graf to the backhand corner and then go hard and flat into her forehand corner, forcing Graf to run the entire length of the baseline to cover it.  No wonder Graf ran out of steam by the decider.

But did Graf try to counter it by changing her tactics? Only sporadically.  At times, she invited Seles to the net and nailed her with the pass.  But she didn’t do it quite often enough and no lobs either.   Most tellingly, Graf did not use the most vicious shot in her arsenal: no, not the forehand but the knifelike short slice.  You can find it in the US Open final contested by the two in 1995 where Graf hit a rally winner with that shot.  And yet, strangely, she didn’t use it on her returns.  Now who uses that shot a lot on his returns?  That’s right, Roger Federer.

By having the ability to both hit a short slice return and a hard topspin backhand return, Federer keeps his opponent off balance, always trying to guess how Federer is going to respond because he always seems to have more than one option against every ball.  More importantly, he uses all those options with varying degrees of frequency.  It is this dynamic range, more than the power or accuracy of Federer’s strokes that makes him such a difficult opponent.

Did Graf lack the ability to similarly produce disconcerting variation on her strokes?  Not really.  But did she want to use variation as a weapon?  Nope.  What she seemed to like above all was to be able to play her time tested patterns over and over and for them to overpower her opponent into submission.  When somebody like Seles or even Martina Navratilova (whose losses to Graf were hard fought and finished with an even head to head against her) denied her the opportunity to dominate with her usual patterns, she didn’t enjoy it and sometimes allowed her frustration at not being play on her terms bog her down into defeat.

And that is the paradox of Graf.  Riveting to watch for the shape of her strokes and her ballet-like footwork but not very interesting in terms of using the geometry of the tennis court. You’d think that with her almost perfectly honed strokes, she would have a whole cornucopia of options open to torment her competitors but what if the player herself didn’t like having to choose from a voluminous menu and instead sought the control of a few simple patterns?

In the 90s, I often watched the Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast on videotape.  So, to describe the nature of Graf’s game with a Beauty and the Beast analogy, Graf was like Belle from outside and like Beast on the inside.  The mind that operated those photogenic groundies was perhaps as subtle as a sledgehammer and in this sense, she was the true progenitor of big babe tennis where Seles still had some of the Chris Evert-like guile if you looked hard enough.

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