1986 Virginia Slims Championships

by John Parsons
from the 1987 ITF Yearbook:
When Martina Navratilova completed the modern Grand Slam in Paris in 1984,
there were those with long memories and an acute sense of tennis history who
were convinced she had lifted women's tennis to standards which surpassed
even those of the legendary Suzanne Lenglen. When, last November, at Madison
Square Garden, the still supremely dominant Miss Navratilova won her fourth
successive Virginia Slims Championships title and her seventh circuit title
in nine years, her own verdict was: 'The way I'm playing now, I'd have
beaten the Martina of two years ago in straight sets.' While ending 1986
with nine consecutive titles and an unbeaten run of 53 matches since the
Paris final, not to mention her emotional Federation Cup triumph in between,
Miss Navratilova looked more than ever the best player in the world.
     She arrived in New York under considerable pressure - and in urgent
need of dentistry after losing a filling the day before. Certainly she did
not have to worry about Chris Evert Lloyd, for the last of the three
opponents who had beaten Miss Navratilova during 1986 was still nursing a
knee injury. There was, however, the uncomfortable prospect of a first-
round tussle against Catarina Lindqvist, the Swedish girl against whom she
had been forced to fend off four match-points in Stuttgart a few weeks
earlier. In addition there was the knowledge that everyone was willing a
showdown for her in the final against Steffi Graf, by common consent the
lady-in-waiting for top honours, who had held three match- points against
the World Champion at Flushing Meadow in September.
     The only stage at which Miss Navratilova appeared remotely vulnerable
was in the semi- final against her doubles partner, Pam Shriver. Trailing
1-3 in the final set, she became the beneficiary of yet another in a long
line of controversial decisions that marred the week. She then went on to
win by far the most exciting match of the tournament and one of the best of
the year.
     The one disappointing feature of an otherwise successful week, which
drew a record total attendance for a women's event of 90,576, was the
quality of officiating. The fact that for the opening days there was not a
full complement of linesmen (surely unforgiveable for an event of this
stature with only one court being used) was partly responsible, but
tournament referee Lee Jackson also blamed the light blue colour of the
court for some of the mistakes which she described as 'terrible'. 'The
trouble is that the colour becomes glary under the lights, highly
reflective, and it makes one drowsy. It makes me drowsy on the sideline so
you can imagine how it affects the umpire and linespersons.'
     There were no such problems in the first match when Manuela Maleeva
advanced 6-4 6-1 over the American, Melissa Gurney, who has been guided by
the same coach (Robert Lansdorp) and emerged from the same baselining mould
as Tracy Austin, right down to that rather stooped two-handed backhand so
characteristic of the former winner of the women's circuit. Miss Gurney led
3-1 before Miss Maleeva started to take charge, mainly through her greater
consistency; but in these days when the all-court players are coming so much
more into their own, it was distressing to hear her say that, at 19, she
feels it is too late for her to start developing a serve-and-volley game.
     Bettina Bunge, continuing her impressive second half of the year, was
too consistently aggressive for Kathy Rinaldi and won 7-5 6-4. In the second
session, Pam Shriver demonstrated the extra freedom, control and topspin she
had developed on the backhand by dismissing the erratic Raffaella Reggi,
6--3 6--1. Continuing the first round, Miss Navratilova immediately showed
her powerful command by overwhelming Miss Lindqvist 6-3 6--0. 'I wanted to
show her how well I could play', she said later, with Stuttgart in mind.
After she had broken for 3--2 in the first set, she Performed with great
authority, especially at the net and overhead. And as if that was not enough
Miss Lindqvist, who admittedly did not play well, was further dismayed when
she was broken to 0-2 in the second set by a backhand so deep over the
baseline that she made no attempt to play the ball, which was called good.
The pleasant, always friendly girl from Malmo accepted it philosophically:
'Maybe the umpire and linesmen didn't have a good day either.'
    Also in the first round, Hana Mandlikova ousted Terri Phelps, who vvas
playing in the Championships for the first time, 6--2 6-4, after holding
points for 5--1 in the second set. Helena Sukova collected a 6-4 6-4 win
over a nervous, predictable Gabriela Sabatini who overhit too often; Claudia
Kohde-Kilsch beat Zina Garrison 6-3 7-5, after the Houston girl had served
for the second set at 5-4; and Miss Graf wobbled quite alarmingly for a time
before her gritty determination carried her through 7-5 4-6 6-2 against Miss
Garrison's fellow-product of John Wilkerson's Houston public parks
programme, Lori McNeil.
     Miss McNeil, whose ranking had soared during 1986, made an exciting
start, more than matching Miss Graf's forehand and cleverly chipping service
returns with a care and thought which tested the West German's patience, as
well as her resolve. Yet when leading 5-3 in the first set, she momentarily
lost her nerve. Miss Graf seized upon the opportunity to break back and
dropped only six more points in the set. Then in the third, when it was most
needed, Miss Graf struck quickly with just enough of her finest returns to
give her two match-winning breaks in the first and third games.
     The quarter-finals began on both an exciting and explosive note. For a
set and a half, through to 6-4 4-1, Miss Mandlikova produced her most
inspired, exhilarating and extravagant tennis against Miss Shriver. She was
magical to watch, with perfectly controlled low volleys, wonderful wristy
winners on both flanks and serving which at times was quite awesome, as she
headed tovvards 15 aces. Amazingly she vvas also heading for defeat.
    One overrule which cost her what would have been a 5-2 lead in the
second set, followed by what seemed another glaring baseline mistake which
enabled Miss Shriver to break back to 4-5, was more than Miss Mandlikova,
with her still-brittle temper, could stomach. At various times she smashed
her racket against the base of the umpire's chair, lashed the net, uttered
an obscenity and generally lost her self-control. Not surprisingly she also
lost the match, 4-6 7-5 6-1. When the players met at the net at the end, Pam
told Hana, 'I'm sorry"', but clarified that by saying 'I wasn't sorry I won
... just sorry that after getting a bad call she didn't put up an effort''.
For the record, despite serving two aces to win the first game of the final
set, Miss Mandlikova won only six more points before storming off saying: 'I
was cheated.'
     Perhaps it was as well that after so much drama, Miss Navratilova's
6--2 6-4 win in 51 minutes over Bettina Bunge was a routine affair, with the
top seed holding her serve throughout and making hardly any unforced errors.
The second pair of quarter-finals fol- lovved a similar pattern. One, in
which Miss Sukova simply out-hit Miss Kohde-Kilsch 6-3 7-6 was suitably
competitive and straightforward. The other, in which Miss Graf again
struggled to find her best form before accounting for Manuela Maleeva, vvas
turbulent and tearful, Miss Maleeva also distraught by the poor line-calls.
     Two in particular were infinitely more significant than the vast
majority which players should be able to shrug off. Having broken for 5-3 on
the way to taking the opening set, with Miss Graf's backhand all adrift, the
Bulgarian would have broken for 2-1 in the second but for a linesman's
extraordinary failure to see a shot more than six inches deep on break-
point. Yet the real 'killer' for Miss Maleeva, who was working frantically
hard to capitalise upon Miss Graf's continued unforced errors, came when she
barely played a return, knowing the previous shot to have been out. It cost
her a break to 5-6, just after she had rallied from 2-4 to 4-4 and held
again for 5-5.
     It was somewhat ironic that, having been serenely in control while
reaching the semi- finals, Miss Navratilova should find it much more
difficult than the steadily improving Miss Graf to clear the last hurdle
before the final. Although the first set against her doubles partner lasted
oniy 29 minutes, vvith the top seed taking it 6-2, Miss Shriver, returning
well, moving smartly and not afraid to go for her shots, was playing
splendidly too. This impression was borne out when she broke for 5-4 in the
second set with a rasping forehand drive-volley on her fifth break-point.
With the set safely tucked away at 6-4, Miss Shriver was exultant. She broke
in the first game of the final set, and although Miss Navratilova broke back
immediately by twice finding the lines with elegant passes of her own, her
poise started to falter. Miss Shriver broke again and held for 3-1. Then at
deuce in the fifth game, after Miss Navratilova had done the unthinkable by
double-faulting twice from 40-15, there was a freak incident which proved to
be the turning point of the match. Lunging for a low volley, Miss
Navratilova involuntarily called out 'higher' to herself as the ball just
cleared the net, and Miss Shriver, claiming she was distracted, failed with
her next return.
    Miss Shriver's appeal for the point to be re-played, which almost
everybody, including Miss Navratilova and her coach Mike Estep said later
would have been the right decision, was refused by both the umpire and
referee. Hard though she tried to put the incident out of her mind, Miss
Shriver was then broken in the sixth game from 40-15 and the set ran away
from her 6-4. It was a disappointing end to a magnificent match, well worthy
of the occasion, during which Miss Navratilova must often have questioned
her wisdom in persuading her doubles partner to revitalise her game. It
almost cost her the Virginia Slims crown.
     Although once more dropping a set, Miss Graf played her best tennis of
the week in defeating Miss Sukova 7-6 3-6 6-1. Not only did her forehand
start to look rampant once more, but also her backhand passes were now
flowing effectively - so much so that one wondered if she might not be
bluffing when she looked forward to the final and said: 'I'm not playing
well enough to give Martina a good match.'
     As it happened, she was right. Clearly jaded at the end of a year in
which she had won eight singles and five doubles titles, Miss Graf none the
less pressed the champion superbly through the first set. Neither player
allowed the other to reach break-point and the teenager reached 6-6 with
only six points against the serve, compared with 11 lost by her opponent.
However, a net-cord winner for Miss Navratilova to 7-6 in the tie-break
against the serve was the breaking point for Miss Graf. She had already
saved two set- points, but Miss Navratilova produced an ace on the third.
From then on it was largely a formality as the holder went on to win 7-6 6-3
6-2, without dropping her serve or being stretched to break-point in any
    In the doubles final, Miss Navratilova and Miss Shriver, who had long
since reconciled their differences over the dispute in their singles
semi-final, were too powerfully consist- ent for Miss Kohde-Kilsch and Miss
Sukova. The favourites won 7-6 6-3, having earlier taken revenge in the
semi-finals over Miss Mandlikova and Wendy Turnbull for their rare defeat in
the March finals.


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