Wimbledon Throwback: Princess Diana watches Steffi battle back from the brink

The most prestigious event on the tennis calendar, Wimbledon, was supposed to begin on June 29. But the major, known for its manicured lawns and crisp white attire, has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Through the fortnight, we will feature some of the most memorable Wimbledon finals. Today we look back at the time when Steffi Graf denied Gabriela Sabatini in 1991...

Steffi Graf with the 1991 Wimbledon trophy

1991:Steffi Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini 6-4, 3-6, 8-6

For the 30th time, 22-year-old Steffi Graf and 21-year-old Gabriela Sabatini found themselves on the opposite sides of a tennis court.

At the time, Graf led their head-to-head 20-9, but that would mean little as the Wimbledon final of 1991 beckoned. Arguably, the biggest prize in the sport.

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The anticipation was high. The top two seeds were in the final of the most revered Grand Slam. This was the 12th time they were meeting in the final across competitions – and the third in the summit clash of a major.

When Princess Diana came to watch

And though Graf was already a nine-time Grand Slam winner, and was now gunning for her third title at Wimbledon, there was a feeling that this edition of the event would crown a new champion. Such was the build-up that Princess Diana and her nine-year-old son Prince William were seated in the royal box to watch the match.

Princess Diana and son Williams watch the 1991 Ladies Final at Wimbledon

But in a tie that had 13 service breaks from a total of 31 games, two failed attempts at serving for the Championship, and the sheer grit on display over the two-hours and seven minutes of play (the longest women’s final since 1970), this would be the match most remembered in the Graf-Sabatini rivalry.

Contrasting form

Sabatini had won six of their previous eight matches, including the final of the 1990 US Open. On the other hand, Graf had not won a major in 18 months, he last title coming at the Australian Open in 1990.

One similarity though was that they both entered the final without dropping a set. Sabatini would ensure neither played would win with a clean run.

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The Argentine lost the first set 6-4, but started to come up to the net more often in the second. She took time away from Graf, with her chip-and-charge style, even stepping well inside the court on occasion to face a second serve.

In all, she broke the Graf serve four times to level the match.

The reigning US Open champion refused to fade in the third, despite going down 2-0. She rallied back and continued to play an aggressive brand of tennis.

Serving for the title, twice

With Graf serving at 4-4, the pressure had started to build. The German’s serve, on the day, had been lacking the accuracy needed to provide her an advantage. And when she was facing a break point, inexplicably, she served a double fault.

Sabatini, despite dropping the first set, was now serving for the title. But Graf’s resilience made the difference, as the German broke back immediately.

And then was broken again in the following game.

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Sabatini, with the score at 6-5, was serving for the match for the second time. At 30-30, she was just two points away from winning her second ever Grand Slam title.

Point of the match

Again Graf hit back, with what was arguably the point of the match.

The German returned a Sabatini second serve hard into the corner of the Argentine’s forehand side. Sabatini just about managed to recover the ball after lunging to her right. She then approached the net – as she had been doing at every opportunity since the second set, and then played an angled volley into Graf’s deuce court.

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Graf, one of the quickest movers in the game, sprinted to meet the ball and tried a passing shot, but Sabatini anticipated it. The second seed moved to her left and met the would-be-pass with a cross court backhand volley, but didn’t get a sharp enough angle to it.

Gabriela Sabatini (left) congratulates Steffi Graf at the net

Graf turned, sprinted again to recover and played an inside-out backhand slice to Sabatini’s deuce court for a winner.

“I think that was the most important point,” Graf said to The Washington Post.

In the next point, another second serve, Graf stepped up and played a powerful inside-in forehand winner to break back.

Thereon, the German held her serve, and broke Sabatini with a forehand cross court return winner to win her 10th title.

Important win

As the history books would write it, Graf held the record for the most number of Open Era Grand Slam titles – 22 – till Serena Williams broke that mark in 2017.

But that third title at Wimbledon gave her the hunger and desire to push forward. In the next eight years, she’d add another 12 titles to her tally before retiring in 1999.

“People have been writing me off. I knew I could do it. I just had to prove it to myself,” she said after the 1991 Wimbledon final. “I wanted to have that feeling again, for once. I needed a win like that.”