Action replay: Powerful Seles becomes the new kid on the block

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The Independent Online
In 1990 Monica Seles became the youngest winner of a Grand Slam title since Lottie Dodd won Wimbledon in 1897 aged 15. Seles, 16, took the French Open title by beating Steffi Graf in the final at Stade Roland Garros. This is John Roberts' report for The Independent.

SEATED BEFORE us in the Interview Room of the Stade Roland Garros, beautifully groomed Monica Seles had a chunky, six-inch chain of linked golden hearts dangling from each ear and chewed and blew bubblegum. Had the 16-year-old French Open champion worn even one of those chains when playing Steffi Graf, she would have flogged herself to death.

The pace and the power of Saturday's final moved Dan Maskell, 82-year- old voice of tennis, to utter more than "Oh I say!" He was astounded. "Maureen Connolly wouldn't have lived with these girls today," he declared. "I believe racket technology has made a big difference, but they are so fit and so fast. Every year I think I've seen it all. Now this. I just hope I'm around for Capriati next year."

Jennifer Capriati, the 14-year-old American semi-finalist, is projected as the next instalment of the nursery opera. A year ago, the bouncy Spaniard, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, stole the show in Paris by defeating Graf to become the youngest champion (17 and five months). On Saturday, Sanchez Vicario virtually became an anonymous face in the crowd as Seles (16 and six months) broke her record, beating Graf, 7-6, 6-4.

Karolj Seles, the player's father and coach, then expressed the opinion that the age limit for professionals should be raised from 14 to 16. "The girls are becoming champions younger and younger, and I'm not sure whether this is so good," he said.

Grunting loudly, and whacking the balls, two-handed, deep into the corners of the court, the skinny Yugoslav has won six consecutive tournaments at a cost of only two sets. Those were dropped here in Paris, at moments during the two weeks of toil when the second seed felt weary. This was not surprising, considering that shortly before she arrived she had accounted for Graf and Martina Navratilova in straight sets in the space of eight days.

Graf's record belies a crisis in her game. She was appearing in her 13th consecutive Grand Slam final, with nine wins to her credit. Her only defeats in finals of the world's four major championships have been to Seles and Sanchez Vicario, in the French, and to Navratilova, at Wimbledon and the United States Open in 1987. In 1988 the German won the Grand Slam and an Olympic gold medal.

Blaming illness for the upset against Sanchez Vicario, Graf picked up her form to win both Wimbledon and the US Open, but when successfully defending her Australian title in January, none of the challengers, once Gabriela Sabatini was injured, appeared to motivate her competitive spirit.

Snuffling through the first week of the French Open, Graf said she was allergic to Paris, and was not sure whether it was the clay court or something in the air. Her problems were not confined to the sinuses. She has lost faith in her game, particularly the backhand, and publicity concerning her father's private life has not helped.

The first 14 minutes of Saturday's final saw Seles rocket into a 3-0 lead. Graf then broke serve, and rain gave the players the best part of an hour to assess the situation. Graf, though broken immediately play resumed, fought back and the set went to a tie-break.

Graf won the first five points and, at 6-2, the set was at her mercy. Faced with a tenacious opponent, ready to hit winners on every ball, she was unable to convert four set points, two with serve, and even double- faulted at 6-5. Graf then recovered from losing the first three games of the second set, only to net a forehand and to be passed by Seles after fashioning two break points for 5-4. When the famous forehand steered the last ball of the match over the baseline after 88 minutes, Graf's day was complete.

As happened last year, Graf's game may find greater reward on the Wimbledon lawns and will be hard to deal with on the cement at the US Open.

When she received her award as the world champion here last week, she paid tribute to Ted Tinling, who died on 23 May. "Ted told me `enjoy the tennis, enjoy the life'," she said. Old Ted would have rejoiced in the success of Seles, having described her as "the most electric happening in tennis since Lenglen".