For those fortunate enough, winning a Grand Slam singles event is the pinnacle of a career, never to be repeated again. Winning more than one proves to the world that your first was not just a ‘flash in the pan’. A select group of players have managed to win a career Grand Slam. An even more select group has managed to win a calendar Grand Slam – Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver among the men (Laver on two occasions in 1962 and 1969) and among the women, Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) (Player Profile). Only Graf, however, has succeeded in winning a calendar year Golden Slam – the four Majors and an Olympic gold medal all in one year, in Graf’s case in 1988.
While a Golden Slam has only been a possibility since 1988 (the first year in which tennis was made an official Olympic sport), winning it is still a monumental achievement. What is particularly remarkable about the Graf achievement is that it took place so early on in her career. She was still relatively young at the time (25) and she had a career that involved her winning Grand Slam singles events as late as 1996. Taking the Golden Slam when she had just reached the pinnacle of the game and had not yet fully consolidated her position over Evert and Navratilova, was outstanding. Let us look at the background context and Graf’s progress towards reaching that record in 1988.
Towards the end of the1980s, the tennis world was speculating over who would replace the two great titans of the women’s game after they had retired – Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Graf came into the 1988 season after winning one Grand Slam event in 1987, the French Open and also reaching that year’s US Open final where she lost to Navratilova. Both Evert and Navratilova were acutely conscious of this new talent on tour and had registered their admiration of Graf’s game to the tennis media.
As always, the Grand Slam year commenced that year with the Australian Open in January in Melbourne. It was the first year the Australian Open had not been played on grass, but was thenceforth to be a hard court event in an impressive new tennis facility. Graf’s first three matches saw her ease through against relative unknowns. Only in the fourth round, did she face a ‘name’ in the shape of the world ranked no. 13, Catarina Lindquist whom she also managed to dispatch in two easy sets. Steffi’s next opponent was the Czech, Hana Mandlikova whom she disposed of with relative ease, 6-2, 6-2 to set up a semi-final contest with her fellow German, eighth seed, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch. Her straight set victory over Kohde-Kilsch then paved the way for the ‘dream final’ against the great Evert. The match was notable in being the last Grand Slam final Evert was ever to compete in. After a rain delay, Graf took the first set easily and raced to a 5-1 lead in the second until Evert staged a heroic comeback to force a tie-break. Graf was ultimately to win the set and the match by 6-1, 7-6, marking the first stage on her path to the eventual Golden Slam.
At Roland Garros in May, she entered the event as defending champion and with an impressive record on clay over the previous couple of years. Again, her first three round encounters presented little problem and her fourth round match against Nathalie Tauziat she also managed to win with relative ease, 6-1, 6-3. Beating Bettina Fulco in the quarters, she then faced Gabriela Sabatini in the semis. Two close rivals and contemporaries, Graf and Sabatini were seen as the ‘new post-Evert/Navratilova’ generation. Graf won that encounter in two sets, one of which was a tie-break. The final against Natasha Zvereeva proved a damp squib, with Graf totally overwhelming Zvereeva by 6-0, 6-0 – the proverbial ‘double-bagel’. It had been a long time since a Grand Slam final had been a complete shut-out and a measure of Graf’s growing dominance.
Next was Wimbledon in June. Graf was in tip-top form and glided her way to the final after a number of easy opening rounds and a particularly decisive semi-final win against Pam Schriver. In the final, she faced Navratilova whom she faced and lost to in the 1987 final. In a three set match, Graf was to come out the winner on this occasion, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, taking one step closer to that elusive Golden Slam.
In late August all attention was focused on Flushing Meadows. Here was the site of Graf’s last loss in a Grand Slam event a year previously to Navratilova. The stakes were high – were she to win here, it would be the first singles calendar Grand Slam since Margaret Court in 1970. On this occasion, she was not to meet her nemesis, Navratilova who was to go out to Zena Garrison in the quarters. Again, her first four opponents were much lesser-ranked players until she met Katerina Maleeva in the fifth round. This proved another relatively easy encounter and as luck would have it, her semis opponent, Chris Evert had to withdraw due to illness. This meant that Graf was to play Sabatini in the final. Here, Graf prevailed after a three set match 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, with that prestigious Grand Slam to her name at only 25 years of age.
Reaching the final leg of her five-stage journey at Seoul, she must have been deeply aware of the historic implications of a gold medal there. Graf’s early opponents posed few problems until she came up against the 11th seed Savchenko who forced Graf to three sets, nearly causing an upset. Graf’s semis opponent, Garrison, proved less of a challenge to produce for Graf yet another final against her rival Sabatini. This she won in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3, catapulting her into the record books, although the impact of the Golden Slam win was to take some time to sink in both for her and also in the public mind.
Whatever debate one might have over the best woman player ever (and Graf always figures in that debate), her Golden Slam stands out as one of the truly great achievements in tennis and sport generally. What was remarkable was the relative ease with which she won each of the five events – very rarely was she severely tested along the way. That is rare for any Grand Slam winner. It was also remarkable that it was achieved in the early part of her career at the top. Although she was to go on and consolidate her position at the top of her game for many years after, no year quite compared with 1988.
There are some who came close to Graf’s achievement. A career Golden Slam was secured by the Woodies and the Bryan Brothers in doubles and who knows what Grand Slammers Pam Schriver and Martina Navratilova might have achieved in women’s doubles had tennis been an official Olympic sport in 1984. Serena Williams, Rafa Nadal and Andre Agassi also have a career Golden Slam in singles. Steffi Graf’s achievement, however, stands far above all others and is unlikely to be overturned in the foreseeable future. Her 1988 Golden Slam is the true ‘gold standard’ of the game.