In 1988, I was lucky enough to be in New York on the day Steffi Graf attempted to complete the Grand Slam. Even though she was playing Gabriela Sabatini, the only player to have beaten her all year (twice!), the thought of Steffi failing was impossible for the majority of players to even consider.
I remember Steffi's awe-inspiring domination of the majors that year. She had dropped just one set in 26 matches before the US Open final, a streak that included a 6-0, 6-0 whitewash in the French Open championship match.
As it turned out, the US Open final proved to be one of her toughest matches of the year, but Steffi prevailed in three sets to capture the Grand Slam -- all four majors in a calendar year, a feat completed by only four other players in history.
Steffi was just 19 years old.
After the women's final, Andre Agassi and Ivan Lendl made their way out of the men's locker room to complete Super Saturday with their semifinal match. As a tour player, I was excited to watch it, but as a tennis fan, I knew the significance of Steffi's accomplishment. I felt compelled to congratulate her. I waited for the chaos in the player lounge to settle down, and made my way across the hall to the women's locker room.
I asked the attendant whether I could see Steffi Graf.
She coughed and smiled.
I explained that I was a fellow player and would just like to shake Steffi's hand.
She reluctantly took my name and disappeared with a "good luck with that, pal" look on her face.
What was I thinking? I didn't know Steffi Graf. To be honest, I rarely saw her. She was not the type to hang around the courts killing time. She liked her matches scheduled early, so she could hit the practice courts afterward and disappear from site. She was all business.
But to my surprise, 30 seconds later, Steffi Graf emerged.
I will never forget the look on her face. A radiant smile highlighted a look of pure joy. It was a look she seldom showed, and her body language, usually rigid, conveyed total relief.
I did what I normally did in those days. I panicked.
I mumbled something about being inspired by her, and congratulated her on the achievement. I threw out a hand for an attempted handshake. Steffi could not have been sweeter. She ignored my hand and gave me a hug, then the European greeting on each cheek, and disappeared back into the locker room all within 20 seconds. It kinda felt like 20 minutes.
That was it.
I remember standing there for about two minutes waiting for my cheeks to return to a more normal color before returning to the men's locker room.
The next time I saw Stefanie was the day I became Andre Agassi's coach. Andre welcomed my family into his home to become part of his family. That was in 2002, 14 years after Steffi accomplished her monumental feat, and turned a potentially awkward exchange with a bashful admirer into a cherished memory.
I won't attempt to describe Stefanie Agassi, the person, other than to say she's so humble that any feeble offering of superlatives on my part would embarrass her. Suffice it to say, Andre married well. She is one of a kind to her family and friends. To tennis, she breathes rarefied air.
Regardless of the outcome of this year's US Open, Serena Williams has already strung together a historic season. Capturing her own Grand Slam, as most people predict will happen, only adds to her legacy. Is Serena's attempt, at age 33, more remarkable that Steffi's achievement at age 19? Frankly, that conversation, along with the GOAT arguments, are not for me. In my eyes, they are two of the greatest, if not the two greatest, ever.
No one better understands the pressure Serena feels than Steffi. She had to deal with it, to focus on the job at hand, to manage expectations.
No player, male or female, has been in this position since 1988.
Tennis fans everywhere are excited at the prospect, eager to see Serena join the most exclusive club in the game.
And no one would be happier for Serena than Steffi Graf.