It can be construed as a subtle dig at an athlete: the notion that a player “outlasts” her opponents. I understand why the word “outlast” can acquire a negative connotation in some minds. The player is an endurance master, someone who persists but doesn’t necessarily dazzle, someone who fights, but doesn’t necessarily dominate or amaze.
Let this much be clear: Becoming an expert in outlasting opponents is anything but a pejorative development. There is no subtle or indirect intent to minimize accomplishments. In tennis, a sport which does not have a time clock, being able to outlast opponents is central, not peripheral, to the sport. Play good defense long enough, play points involved enough, play shots demanding enough, and the opponent must find a way to keep everything about her — her wits, her legs, her mind, and her technique — intact. Final-set tennis matches, especially late in tournaments and even more particularly in the final stages of majors, throw two competitors into a boiling cauldron. Excelling in that cauldron is one way to win the prize, but failing to break down, refusing to be the one who flinches, offers an even more reliable way of earning a fat trophy instead of a thin runner-up plate.
To be sure, Steffi Graf dominated in a number of her 22 major-tournament titles. She didn’t build the architecture of a storied career primarily by squeaking out narrow wins…
… but in Wimbledon finals, Graf generally didn’t dismantle her foes. She outlasted them.
It is a fascinating inversion in the history of the Open Era at Wimbledon: Whereas Serena Williams has won seven Wimbledon finals and captured two of them in three sets, Graf has won the same amount of Wimbledons (seven) but won only two finals in straight sets. Five of the German’s Venus Rosewater Dishes were claimed in three sets. Whether she rebounded to push back Martina Navratilova in the late 1980s, or fended off Gabriela Sabatini in 1991, or benefited from Jana Novotna’s implosion in 1993, or denied Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1995, Graf developed and retained that special capacity only the greatest of champions acquire: the ability to make one’s presence on the court so pronounced that the opponent feels the weight of the task at hand. That presence — called “aura” by some and “swagger” by others — earns match victories on a regular basis throughout full seasons. On occasion, it wins major championships even against tested and proven competitors, Navratilova and Arantxa being the foremost examples in Graf’s decade of prosperity (1987-1996, eight finals and seven titles) at the All England Club.
What adds to the rich portrait of Graf’s third-set success in Wimbledon finals is that the profiles of her opponents cover the gamut of challenges and circumstances. Graf defeated a sage and wise Navratilova, the most successful Wimbledon singles player of the Open Era (either gender) and a serve and volleyer. She defeated the all-court game of Sabatini. She handled Novotna’s brand of serve-and-volley tennis on a day when, until 4-1 in the third, the underdog played with house money. Graf also absorbed the consistent groundstrokes and defense of Sanchez Vicario, the clay-court stalwart who made herself into a highly competent grass-court (and all-surface) professional. The fact that Graf endured those slugfests closer to age 30 than 20 underscored her fully fortified game, a castle her foes rarely managed to break through.
Navratilova and Serena won most of their Wimbledons by slashing and smashing their final-round opponents in convincing straight-set demolitions. Graf forged such moments in her own right, especially her 1992 blowout of a hesitant Monica Seles, but in the crucible of a Wimbledon final, Graf’s foremost capacity was her ability to survive the opponent’s onslaught and trust that her own German-engineered strokes would prove to be superior in a third set.
They always were.
Graf never did lose a Wimbledon final which went three sets (5-0). Players had to strike first and stay hot to oust her, as Martina did in 1987 and as Lindsay Davenport did in Graf’s last major-tournament tennis match in 1999. In battles of physical attrition or mental gymnastics, Steffi stood tallest at Wimbledon. In the hot and searing sun, she regularly made herself tougher and asked opponents the kinds of questions she couldn’t always answer.
This is why Steffi Graf owns such an enormous Wimbledon legacy, one which will stand the test of time.