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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Monday, May 25, 2020

Steffi Graf knew a thing or two about dominating women’s tennis as a teenager—in 1988 she became the only player in history to rack up a Golden Slam, and that came a year after she first climbed to No.1 in the WTA rankings as an 18-year-old.

Tennis Express

But she wasn’t the only precocious teenager to ever make a significant mark on the sport and in 1990 at Roland Garros she met her match—and rival—in a cantankerously exuberant 16-year-old from the former Yugoslovia by the name of Monica Seles.

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Seles, who had been groomed by Nick Bollettieri in Bradenton, Florida since 1986 (though he no longer coached her by 1990), had already developed a reputation as a fearless phenom and a tireless worker. Her potent two-handed strokes off of both wings were struck courageously, and in her fourth major appearance Seles proved ready for any challenge that might come her way, even the world-beating, well-rounded tennis of Graf, who was toting one of the most explosive forehands that the game would ever see.

At 20 Graf had already amassed nine Grand Slam titles, but the tenth would prove to be tricky, as Seles rallied from 6-2 down in the opening set tiebreaker of the final, taking six points in a row and then rolling to a comprehensive 7-6(6) 6-4 victory which made her the youngest Grand Slam champion in history at the time.

It was remarkable to watch Seles handle the pressure and dominate the sway of rallies against the World No.1. The rallies were tense, the contest was hotly contested, but it was clear that Seles and her aggressive approach had the territorial edge. It was Graf on the run in the majority of points and Seles stricking her groundies corner to corner with uncanny consistency.

The enormous victory would mark the first of three consecutive Roland Garros titles for Seles and, perhaps even more incredibly, the title would be the first of eight titles won by the future Hall of Famer as a teenager.

Her rivalry with Graf is of course known for its before and after. Two years later Seles defeated Graf in one of the greatest Roland Garros finals ever in 1992, in three dramatic, whipsaw sets, but before she could return to pursue a fourth consecutive title the infamous stabbing incident had occurred in Hamburg.

The pair played four Grand Slam finals before the stabbing, with Seles winning three of them; for what it's worth, Graf won three of the four major finals they played after 1993.

Seles would never be the same after the incident in April of 1993 in Hamburg; sadly, neither would the Graf-Seles rivalry. The pair—and the world—had been cheated out of something that could have blossomed into one of the more magnetic matchups that the sport would ever see.

Rather than relishing the glory of a rivalry fulfilled, we celebrate a thrilling beginning while harboring perpetual curiosity about its aftermath. We wonder what might have been and how the pair’s collective future might have been shaped differently had Seles not suffered the tragedy and been forced to resurrect her career in its shattering aftermath.

Nevertheless we celebrate the ferocity with which Seles introduced herself to a player that was at the time the game’s greatest and most daunting. The feisty and fierce Seles showed her teeth and let forth every ounce of her fire to take down Graf and rise to the top of tennis.

She finally would hit No.1 in March of 1991 and would continue to dominate until fate took her powers out of her hands.


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