Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Martina Slam

Came across this ad Martina Navratilova's racket company took out to congratulate her after winning the 1984 French Open, thus capturing the four major singles titles in a row. I remember at the time Martina exulted -- as does this ad -- that she'd won "the Grand Slam," which of course means winning all for Grand Slam events in the same calendar year. (Despite the enormous achievement, her declaration was met with widespread skepticism at the time.) In Martina's (and Yonex's) defense, their sloppy nomenclature was actually the fault of the International Tennis Federation, which in an attempt to stir up excitement in the game had changed the definition two years earlier to simply be the title holder of all four majors at once. This was paired with a cool $1 million bonus to anyone who completed the feat. (Martina was more than happy to courtesy-laugh at those "Czech deposit" jokes!) 

Winning the 1984 French Open -- defeating clay-court legend Chris Evert 6-3, 6-1 -- gave Martina four slams in a row. 

Although push back from purists quickly led to the money being withdrawn -- Steffi Graf got no bonus when she won the actual Grand Slam in 1988(!), and she, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams (twice) got nothing for their non-calendar-year Slams -- the ITF didn't bother to officially change the definition of a Grand Slam until 2011.

The reaction to Martina's fake Slam in '84 is probably why Serena didn't bother claiming one in 2003 -- it was dubbed the more accurate "Serena Slam" -- even though under ITF rules she had technically "completed" it. And when Rafael Nadal arrived at the 2011 Australian Open with three consecutive majors under his belt, one writer observed: "Most traditionalists insist that the 'Grand Slam' should refer only to winning all four titles in a calendar year, although the constitution of the International Tennis Federation, the sports governing body, spells out that 'players who hold all four of these titles at the same time achieve the Grand Slam.'"

Undeterred, Martina would follow her crown in Paris with victories at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1984 and wind up being just two wins from the calendar Slam, only to be upset by a teenage Helena Sukova in the Melbourne semifinals, 1-6, 6-3, 7-5. (I couldn't help but think of this match when Serena Williams -- also just two matches from the calendar Slam -- lost to Roberta Vinci in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals by a similar score, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.) As a result, Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf remain the only women to win the true Grand Slam, although Martina showed there were no hard feelings when she teamed up with Helena to win the 2009 Wimbledon Invitational women's doubles event, over Ilana Kloss (aka Billie Jean King's longtime love) and fellow South African Rosalyn (Fairbank) Nideffer.

P.S. Sukova was deservingly inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2018, having won nine major doubles titles and five mixed. Poor thing also reached four major singles finals but came up short against Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, twice. You might say Andy Roddick had it easy by comparison!

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