WIMBLEDON, England -- Seventeen times Natasha Zvereva lost to Steffi Graf. She lost to her on clay, carpet, grass and hard courts. She lost to her on three continents over 10 years. She lost to her so painfully, so many times that she had a hard time recalling all the setbacks.
But yesterday, Zvereva won.
She beat Graf, 6-4, 7-5, in the third round at Wimbledon. She beat her on a wet, blustery day when battleship gray clouds hung low over Centre Court.
And Zvereva beat Graf for the first time by doing something that for her was unprecedented: She concentrated on every point.
"People were kidding me in the locker room about concentrating on every point," Zvereva said. "They said, 'What's the matter, are you sick?' "
The good-natured humor was so intense Zvereva said she crawled into a cubicle.
"It was by far the best match of my life," she said.
And it was a match that turned Wimbledon upside down.
Graf's comeback from knee surgery to Centre Court was the story of Wimbledon's first week. At 29, her tennis days counting down, she was making a determined bid to get back near the top, if not all the way to No. 1.
But against Zvereva, Graf was sluggish and tight, her normally long, loping strides reduced to stutter-steps. She couldn't crack her returns, and with a lack of match preparation, she couldn't withstand the pressure on the big points.
"Every time it was important, I didn't play very well," said Graf, the seven-time Wimbledon winner and No. 4 seed.
Still, Graf was hardly discouraged. Unlike Boris Becker, who walked away from Wimbledon last year for the last time, Graf didn't use the defeat as a platform for retirement. She didn't commit herself to playing next year's Wimbledon, let alone this summer's U.S. Open, but she said she would be on the summer circuit.
"I've learned to take what's coming up next," Graf said.
Graf has won 21 Grand Slams and has nothing left to prove to anyone but herself. She fought to get back on the tour a year after surgery on her left knee. She endured small but painful injuries and a few on-court setbacks. But Wimbledon appeared to revitalize her, even bringing her to tears after her opening match.
"I want to play good tennis again," she said.
For a few points against Zvereva she played like the Graf of old. She unleashed her greatest weapon, her forehand. And in the last game, fighting to hold on, she smacked ground strokes that barely cleared the net and bounced at Zvereva's ankles.
But it wasn't enough.
"I haven't been very relaxed the last few days," Graf said. "In my matches, I haven't been comfortable. When I go on the court, I've been nervous."
If anyone should have been nervous, it was Zvereva, born in Belarus but all but raised in the United States and on the world tour for a decade. After all those years of playing so horribly against Graf, there were few signs that she could end the losing streak.
Just about everyone in tennis remembers Zvereva's first loss to Graf in the 1988 French Open final. She didn't even win a game.
"I was so nervous that day you couldn't describe it," Zvereva said. "I put extreme pressure on myself. I beat myself."
Over the years, she established a flighty reputation -- good in doubles with three Grand Slam titles, but inconsistent in singles.
Zvereva came into the match with more of a mantra than a plan: HTC "I was going to go with the flow."
The flow told her to match Graf chip for chip, ground stroke for ground stroke. It commanded her to keep her cool even when she said a Graf forehand floated long but was called in. The old Zvereva would have argued. The new one said to herself, "Oh, I better shut up and play."
And she did. It was Graf who gave in, sending one last backhand return into the net.
"I was mentally tough on every point," Zvereva said. "I don't think that ever happened."
When she grabbed the victory, Zvereva got the greatest payoff of all. Graf shook her hand, looked in her eyes, and said, "By the way, very nice match."
That meant a lot to Zvereva. Nobody beats her 18 straight.
Men's singles, second round
Goran Ivanisevic (14) def. Andrei Medvedev, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-0. Daniel Vacek def. Marc-Kevin Goellner, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3.
Patrick Rafter (6) def. Magnus Gustafsson, 6-3, 6-7 (7-9), 6-2, 6-1.
Women's singles, third round
Natasha Zvereva def. Steffi Graf (4), 6-4, 7-5. Lindsay Davenport (2) def. Maria Alejandra Vento, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2. Miriam Oremans def. Mariaan de Swardt, 6-4, 7-5. Sandrine Testud (14) def. Lori McNeil, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7). Magui Serna def. Naoko Sawamatsu, 6-3, 5-7, 6-0.
Pub Date: 6/27/98