- 21 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, the 21st of June 1994, world No 1 Steffi Graf was defeated in the first round of Wimbledon for the first and only time in her career, by Lori McNeil (7-5 7-6). Graf became the first defending champion in the tournament’s history to lose in the first round. The German had previously claimed five titles at the All England Club, including the three last editions: she hadn’t lost a match there since the 1990 semi-final against Zina Garrison, and this loss ended a 21-match win streak. The German had not been defeated in London before the semi-finals since 1985, and she hadn’t been eliminated from the first-round of a Grand Slam tournament since the 1984 US Open.
Steffi Graf was born 1969, the German had been world No 1 without a break since the summer of 1993, after her main rival on the tour, Monica Seles, had been away from the courts since her stabbing in April. She had already been sitting on top of the WTA ranking without an interruption between 1987 and 1991. Graf completed an amazing Golden Grand Slam in 1988, claiming the gold medal at the Olympic Games on top of the four Grand Slam crowns, a unique achievement in tennis history. In 1994, before Wimbledon, Graf had lost only three matches on the tour in the past twelve months. Undefeated in a major event since the 1993 Australian Open final loss to Monica Seles, she faced a major disappointment in the French Open semi-final, where a red-lining Mary Pierce unexpectedly outplayed her 6-2 6-2. Her game was based on a tremendous forehand which she could fire in any direction, a legendary footwork and a sliced backhand to neutralize her opponents.
Lori McNeil was born in 1963, and turned pro in 1983. In 1988, she became the second African American player to enter the top 10, reaching world No 9 in April. In singles, her biggest achievements were a semi-final reached at the 1987 US Open (lost to Steffi Graf), and a semi-final at the 1992 Masters Cup (lost to Martina Navratilova). As Lori McNeil enjoyed attacking the net consistently, she held 28 titles in doubles, and four out of her ten singles titles had been conquered on grass.
Wimbledon is the oldest and the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Held by the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club since 1877, it moved into its current location in 1922, the same year that the Centre Court was built. Considered by many as the most intimidating court in the world, with its famous Rudyard Kipling quote above the entrance (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”), the Centre Court had seen the best players of all time competing for the title. After the US Open switched to clay and then hard court in the 1970’s, and after the Australian Open switched to hard court in 1988, Wimbledon remained the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on grass, a surface that is usually more suitable for serve and volley players. Not only did Wimbledon keep its surface, but it also maintained old-fashioned traditions such as the all white dress code.
In 1994, Steffi Graf was dominating the game outrageously again, after Monica Seles’ stabbing in April 1993. She had just suffered a painful loss in the Roland-Garros semi-final, but most thought would not be enough to crush her level of confidence. After all, the stunning loss to Pierce was only her third loss in twelve months, and her Pierce had played close to perfection that day. At the All England Club, Graf had won the three last editions of the Championships and had reached at least the semi-finals every year since 1987. No one thought Lori McNeil, then No 22 in the world, whom she had beaten eight times in nine encounters, could threaten her in the first round of the tournament.
This first round was played on a particularly rainy day, which caused it to be interrupted for almost three hours. McNeil displayed her usual serve and volley strategy, putting a defensive Steffi Graf under permanent pressure. The American knew she could disturb Graf by attacking her backhand, which she sliced most of the time, and following to the net. McNeil took the first set, 7-5.
In the second set, Graf took the lead and even obtained a set point at 5-3, but McNeil saved it by serving an ace. Pushed into a tie-break, Graf practically sealed her fate herself with a netted smash and a double fault. McNeil won the tie-break 7-5 and created one of the biggest surprises in Wimbledon’s history.
“You can’t focus on the conditions, you just have to watch the ball that much more,” said McNeil, quoted by The New York Times “I was making the right choices, the right decisions, and that consumed my thoughts the whole match”.
As for Steffi Graf, this is how she reflected on her loss:
“It’s very disappointing, and obviously it didn’t help me that it started raining, but we both had to play the conditions, and she played better than me; that was obvious.”
Lori McNeil would not be satisfied by her first-round feat: she would go as far as the semi-final where she would suffer a close loss to Conchita Martinez (3-6 6-2 10-8). The American would never ever go past the third round of a Grand Slam tournament again, nor add any more singles titles to her list of achievements. Slowly declining before eventually ending her singles career at the end of 1999, she would continue her career in doubles only, until 2002.
Graf was not done with disappointment in 1994. She would lose in the US Open final to Arantxa Sanchez, 1-6 7-6 6-4, playing three consecutive Grand Slams tournaments without winning one for the first time since 1990. She would recover from the 1994 disappointments, and in 1995 and 1996, she would win each of the six Grand Slam tournaments she attended. By winning the 1995 US Open, she would become the only woman in history to win each of the four Grand Slam titles at least four times. Steffi Graf would then beat Martina Navratilova’s record by holding the world No 1 spot for a total of 377 weeks, and when she retired, in 1999, soon after claiming her last major crown in Roland-Garros, she would finish with an amazing total of 22 Grand Slam singles titles.
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