In midsummer 1990, the Player’s Challenge (predecessor of Rogers Cup) was entering its second decade in Montréal, and women’s tennis was positively thriving. New young champions ranging in age from 14 to 20—Capriati, Martinez, Seles, Sabatini, Sanchez-Vicario, Fernandez and the Maleeva sisters—emerged. Tour regulars, including the eternal Martina Navratilova, then 34 years old, did their best to fight off the up-and-comers. A perusal of Steffi Graf’s record would naturally lead one to place her in the former of the two categories, but the 21-year-old World No.1 was practically an old-timer. She had dominated the Tour for the past two years, most notably thanks to her legendary Golden Slam*. She waltzed into Parc Jarry with two losses in 1987, three in 1988, two in 1989 and three in 1990. There was little wonder why all eyes were on Fraulein Forehand. Like the press, local fans were delighted to welcome her on her very first visit to the city.
The headlines that recounted Graf’s triumph on August 5 could have been penned before she ever walked out onto the court. Despite the brilliant uncertainty of sports and with all due respect to a very worthy opponent who toppled Sabatini to secure her ticket to the final, there was no way Katerina Maleeva was going to be able to keep up with the all-time great. Steffi charged into the final at full speed, dropping only 10 points to take the first set 6-1. Every one of her lethal weapons—from her powerful serves to her drive volleys and backhand slices—found its target. Then, up 3-1 in the second, she hit snag: less-than-stellar hitting, a rival who had found her mojo and a few looming clouds.
After the rain delay, hurricane Katerina hit land. Dragged into a tiebreaker, Graf collapsed as Maleeva, brave and determined, fought to beat the odds.
In the final set, the German regained her composure and imposed her rule. She closed out the match at 6-3, winning the hearts of the 9 000 people in attendance.
At the trophy presentation, the ordinarily impassive ace was noticeably relieved. So sure of herself when in control, Steffi seemed to have wanted to make the suspense—and thrill—last a little longer. In her victory speech, Montréal’s new darling even cracked a few jokes, smiling brightly.
Despite the defeat, Katerina Maleeva took many positives from stealing her very first set from the superstar.
Besides the fans, the other outright winner was certainly the tournament itself, which Maleeva qualified as the most well-organized event she had been to in her six years on Tour.
*In 1988, Steffi Graf won all four Grand Slam championships and Olympic gold at the Seoul Games.