WATCH—Stories of the Open Era – International Tennis Hall of Fame:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we’ll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
The New York Times’ summation of the 1995 US Open women’s final was as succinct as it was surreal: This was, the paper said, “a final-round match that pitted Seles against the very woman on whose behalf she was knifed in the back on April 30, 1993.”
There had been highly anticipated and ultra-tense Open finals before, but Graf vs. Seles in ’95 went beyond the normal boundaries of competition. It was the first meeting between the WTA’s two best players since Seles had been stabbed more than two years earlier by Gunter Parche, a psychotic Graf fan upset that the Croatian had taken the No. 1 ranking from his fellow German.
Over the next 28 months, Parche’s twisted mission had been accomplished. In 1995, with Seles on the sidelines, Graf won Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and ascended to No. 1 again. She entered the Open final with a 38-1 record on the year. But Graf also entered it with her own troubled tale to tell. The previous month, her father, Peter, had been arrested and jailed for tax invasion. Graf herself had yet to be cleared in the case, and she was unable to talk to him. According to Steffi, that year’s Open was “the most difficult ordeal” she had ever played through.
Graf’s ordeal culminated in what felt like a dream final and a nightmare final all at once. After staying away for two years and wondering if she would ever be able to play in public again, Seles began her comeback with 11 straight wins. Still, that wasn’t enough to make her feel entirely comfortable: At the Open, she played with a security guard stationed directly behind her.
“Sitting in the chair is the worst part, because I used to feel safe there,” Seles said. “Now, in the back of my mind, I can’t. Not yet.”
However she felt sitting in that chair, Seles showed no fear once she began playing. To most observers, she appeared to have picked up right where she left off before the stabbing. In her first six matches at Flushing, Seles didn’t drop a set, and for half a second, it looked like she had won the first set from Graf as well. Serving at 6-5 in the first set tiebreaker, Seles hit what she thought was an ace, and began to walk to the sideline. But a late out call brought her back on court, and changed the course of the match.
At first, the late call frustrated Seles, who missed two forehands to lose the set. In the second set, though, she turned that frustration to good use. According to the Times, she “poured on the power and outhit Graf by drilling the ball at every white line eligible to receive punishment.”
As Seles put it: “It made me mad.”
But she could only stay mad for so long. After absorbing the first bagel set ever handed out to a women’s champion in a U.S. Open final, Graf steeled herself against the onslaught and regained the upper hand with her usual mix of pinpoint serves and powerful forehands.
“I didn’t think I had the tools for it,” admitted Graf, who had lost to Seles in three of their previous four Grand Slams finals. It was Graf’s fourth US Open title, which made her—and still makes her—the only player to win all four majors at least four times.
Graf and Seles, two players intertwined in the best and worst ways possible, finished in an emotional embrace at the net. While Graf was ahead on the scoreboard, Seles may have won something bigger over those two weeks: Her doubts about her future had disappeared.
“Wow,” a smiling Seles said afterward, “I made the right decision, and my life is moving forward.”
Graf was a champion again. Seles was a tennis player again.
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