The most celebrated “Super Saturday” in the history of the US Open is irrefutably Sept. 8, 1984, when the fates seemed to decree that an entire program of play would keep the public not only immersed but also brought to the edge of their seats for more than 12 hours of tennis that was as enticing as it gets. They witnessed Stan Smith coming from behind to oust John Newcombe in the senior final, Ivan Lendl saving a match point in the process of defeating Pat Cash in the semifinals, Martina Navratilova rallying steadfastly to beat her great rival Chrissie Evert, and John McEnroe overcoming Jimmy Connors in a titanic five-set collision that ended at 11:16 p.m. It was an incomparable smorgasbord of tennis in which each and every match was hanging in the balance. Moreover, all of those contests were played at an astounding level.
Yet 11 years and one day later, here was a “Super Saturday” that was remarkably close in terms of quality and suspense. That day commenced with Americans Pete Sampras and Jim Courier battling fiercely through four sets. Sampras held back his countryman with his trademark clutch serving and some dazzling running forehand winners. At the end of the day, in the second men’s semifinal, icons Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, not on the best of terms at the time, played a high-octane match that was also settled in four sets. Unbeaten since losing to Becker in the semifinals of Wimbledon, Agassi turned the tables on the German, claiming victory in four compelling sets.
But the best match of that day was the women’s final-round skirmish between the redoubtable Steffi Graf and her inimitable rival Monica Seles. By this time in their illustrious careers, the two superstars had met regularly on the big occasions. At the start of the '90s, Seles had twice toppled Graf in the finals of the French Open, winning hard-fought matches in both 1990 and 1992. Prior to that, Graf had ousted Seles in three arduous sets at the 1989 French Open semifinals, when Monica made her debut on the Parisian clay.
The big meetings continued between this dynamic duo. Graf crushed Seles in the Wimbledon final of 1992 but Seles was victorious in a three-set final at the 1993 Australian Open. Their rivalry was flourishing. Each and every appointment they made with each other was an adventure for them and the fans. They were two phenomenal players who blended beautifully whenever they stood across the net from each other. The fans greeted all of their contests with a deep sense of fascination and appreciation.
But suddenly, in the spring of 1993, Seles’s life was altered irrevocably. Stabbed in the back by a deranged Graf fan at a changeover during a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, Seles was sent into shock and left the game for about 28 months. The trauma of that moment lingered much longer than Seles would have liked, but she returned in the summer of 1995, triumphantly, sweeping through the field in Canada, barely losing games in the process.
At the US Open, Seles continued to play masterfully, storming confidently into the final against Graf. It was the battle everyone wanted to see. They had clashed in the finals of four other major finals, but this was their first duel in New York. And what a beauty it was. The rallies in the first set were out of this world as both women explored every inch of the court and kept driving the ball deep into the corners. Points were won with aggression and clean ball striking, not lost with carelessness. On their way to a tiebreak, Graf dropped only six points in six service games but Seles held up her end of the bargain.
In that critical tiebreak, one point was absolutely pivotal. Seles was serving at 6-5 with a set point, and went down the T, believing she had produced an ace. But, much to her chagrin, her serve was called wide. Graf then proceeded to wallop a forehand return winner, and recouped as only she could to win the tiebreak sequence, 8-6. Despite that jarring setback, Seles blitzed through the second set with brilliant and unrelenting shotmaking, and did not concede a game.
Yet Graf was unruffled. She started locating her serve in the third set much the way she had in the first. The German competitor held from 0-30 in the first game of the third set and 0-30 in the third game, but held on sedulously both times. Thereafter, she was unshakable on her delivery and Seles seemed to fade physically. For the seventh time in 11 career confrontations — and the fourth time in seven meetings at the major — Graf was the victor against Seles. In turn, the German took her third major of that excellent 1995 season.
When it was over, the two women embraced at the net. The fans applauded unreservedly. It was not quite an epic but awfully close, and the tennis all across the three sets was stunning. Graf — never prone to speaking hyperbolically –- said with conviction, “This was the biggest win that I have ever achieved. There is nothing that comes even close to this one.”
For her part, Seles was gracious in defeat, remarking, “I think Steffi played great. I mean, she was running balls down that very few people even go for them, and she wasn’t making too many unforced errors. I felt her serve was going very well today. Not playing Steffi for a long time, it was hard to remember what was going on then, but we always played a lot of close matches, and she played better on the key points today.”
At the start of the next year, Seles won her ninth and last major at the Australian Open. Graf won three more majors again in 1996, including another final-round victory over Seles at the US Open. In those 1995-96 seasons combined, she did not lose a match at a Grand Slam tournament, winning all six she played. Graf concluded her career with 22 majors, distancing herself from Seles historically. But we will never know how magnificent Seles might have been if she had not endured a tragedy when she was only 19. After the stabbing, she was never quite the same player again, although her final with Graf in 1995 was a gem that would live forever in the hearts and minds of all who saw it.