In theory, it’s possible to win a best-of-three sets tennis match by playing and winning 48 straight points. Granted, nobody’s ever done this at the professional level, but this conceptual event still has a name: the “golden match.” Only two people have even won a single set without dropping a point (a “golden set”), once in 1983 and again in 2012. A golden match is a little like throwing a perfect game, in that your opponent is going to get a fair chance on every one of those points. You can’t burn clock, and, when you’re serving, your misdirection options still require you to put the ball in a defined space — the service box and the strike zone — to start the action.
A golden match is also very different from throwing a perfect game, because you only get two chances, not four, to hit your target, and there aren’t eight other tennis players around to help you. Maybe it’s better to think of it as simultaneously pitching a perfect game and batting 27 straight times without striking out.
Let’s say you pulled it off. Forty-eight points played and won, without a single unforced error or double fault or ace by your opponent or perfect shot that sailed just a centimeter too long. This is what that match would look like as a graph.
Beautiful, isn’t it? But, again, unattainable for all practical purposes. So why am I telling you about this thing that hasn’t ever happened in tennis and likely never will? Because I want you to have that visual of perfection in your mind when you look at this next graph.
Those are the 61 points Steffi Graf needed to play to win the 1988 French Open Women’s final — not an early-round match, mind you, the damn FINAL — in a match that took 32 minutes to complete from start to finish, if you don’t count the hour-long rain delay in the middle. Only one game went to deuce, and that was the only one Graf’s opponent, Natasha Zvereva, had a lead in at any point.
Before you mentally write off Zvereva, you should know that she won 20 Grand Slam titles as a doubles player, including beating Graf and Gabriela Sabatini in the ‘89 French Open, a career which got her into the Tennis Hall of Fame. Oh, she was also the first Russian athlete to publicly demand that she keep her tournament earnings instead of giving them to the Soviet Tennis Federation, a fight she wound up winning.
But yeah, this match was not her most fun day.
Zvereva, who was 17 at the time and had only turned pro about a month earlier, was certainly a factor in Graf’s feat. But 1988 Steffi Graf was as close to untouchable as any tennis player’s ever been. She’d only lost six of the 82 sets she’d played in the season before this match. She won 11 of the 14 WTA events she entered, claiming every major championship and an Olympic gold medal.
Let’s add one more data point for comparison. Nobody’s won a Grand Slam final, 6-0, 6-0, since this match, but Serena Williams did a pretty thorough job picking apart Maria Sharapova in the 2007 Australian Open, with a 6-1, 6-2 final score. What happens if we take away all the points from the three games Sharapova won and make this, effectively, a 6-0, 6-0 win for Williams?
Williams needed to play about an extra point and a half per game in our imagined double bagel, with four of those games going to deuce. This was a steamrolling, and it was still farther away from Graf’s performance than Graf was from a golden match.
Let’s go back to baseball and perfect games for a second. A perfect game is 27 outs, but there’s still a lot of variance within that when it comes to how many pitches you have to throw, since a batter flying out on the first pitch counts the same as a batter fouling pitch after pitch off until you finally get them out. These are the 13 perfect games since baseball lowered the pitching mound in 1969 through the 2018 season.
First of all, that’s dang efficient of you, David Cone. Second, there’s something especially impressive about the perfect games that took a ton of pitches. Beyond the fatigue or pressure, those pitchers took a riskier path to perfection. Matt Cain had to give batters 37 more chances than Cone did to luck out a bloop single, or benefit from a fielding error, or get hit by a pitch. All perfect games are impressive, rare feats that deserve celebration. But if you make it through 125 pitches to get there, well, that’s quite the journey.
What does that have to do with tennis? Just like an out in baseball, there are lots of paths to a point in tennis. You can watch your opponent serve two balls into the net without moving your racquet, or you can grind through a 30-shot rally. And, as with baseball, the more shots you’re forced to take during a point, the more opportunities you’re giving the other player to win it.
Even with the extra three games Williams played and lost against Sharapova, Graf still hit 14 more shots in her match against Zvereva. Individually, they didn’t all go Graf’s way, but cumulatively, those additional chances for Zvereva to claw back into a game or a set didn’t knock Graf off the path to 6-0, 6-0. Of the 61 points in this match, Graf won an astounding 49 — and she had to power through to win several of them.
At the end of the match, Graf apologized to the crowd, telling them “I’m very sorry it was so fast.” I’m not sure the apology was necessary. They may not have gotten the battle they expected, but those in attendance got to witness one of the sport’s masters flirting with perfection on a stage you’d never think to find it.