Graf puts Hingis in her place

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Steffi Graf had to draw on all her experience and her best tennis to make it through to today's dream women's final against Monica Seles at the United States Open.

The top seed survived four set points against Martina Hingis in a dramatic climax to the first set of their rain delayed semi-final as Hingis threatened to pursue a generational change she started in the fourth round when she beat Graf's contemporary Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

This time age and experience triumphed over the exuberance of youth, and perhaps the women's tennis authorities will heave a private sigh of relief that a 15-year-old (Hingis turns 16 in three weeks) will not be in a Grand Slam final.

The Women's Tennis Association Tour was bold in introducing strict age regulations two years ago to prevent girls playing professional tennis too soon (Hingis just escaped the new rules), and while Hingis could probably have handled the pressure of being a US Open finalist, it might have sent all the wrong signals to pushy parents of gifted girls. Playing under cloudy skies that threatened rain throughout the hour and a half the match lasted, Hingis raced to a 5-3 lead, due both to her own consistency of penetration and an unusually high quota of Graf errors.

Serving for the set, Hingis blew one set point by netting a forehand, but it looked to be of no consequence when Graf - who at 4-5 needed treatment for a problem with her left knee - stood at 0-40 on her own serve in the next game. There followed three remarkable rallies, one of 27 strokes, another of 20 with Graf playing her best tennis to save all three set points. Hingis had another, her fifth, but again Graf pulled it out of the fire.

At that point, with the atmosphere on the stadium court electric, Hingis threw her racquet down in frustration. When Graf won the next point, Hingis repeated the act and won herself a warning for racquet abuse. She would have done better to have incurred a time violation to get her breathe back, and she admitted later that when the set points went begging she felt very tired.

Graf levelled for 5-5, broke Hingis in the next game, and served out to love for the set. When she broke Hingis in the first service game of the second set and then held for 2-0, she had won six straight games, and while the Swiss girl rallied, it was only to make the final score a respectable 7-5, 6-3.

In today's final, Graf will probably start - as she did last year - as a slight underdog against Seles, who beat Conchita Martinez 6-4, 6-3 in the first semi-final, a match completed on time on Friday afternoon before heavy rain played havoc with the US Open's schedule.

Seles was not at her best, but even against a more spirited Martinez - who has not won a set against Seles in nine matches she didn't need to be.

Martinez played a more intelligent match than she has down in the past against Seles but the No 2 seed was so much keener and with Martinez staying well behind her baseline, Seles was safely able to serve at three- quarter pace and avoid putting undue strain on the shoulder injury she has been carrying since January.

In the men's event Andre Agassi's semi-final against Michael Chang will be the first on, no doubt acceptable to Pete Sampras, whose dramatic quarter-final against Alex Corretja on Thursday night left him drained and dehydrated. His win on a 9-7 final set tie-break, during which he was sick at the back of the court, earned him admirers for the gutsiest performance of the championships.

Courageous he undoubtedly was, but there are still those who question to what extent it was an act of heroism or just an act. Without being disrespectful, Corretja said of the hangdog look: "I saw him really tired and then he played an ace, and I start to think, 'Oh this guy is not that tired. I've seen him a couple of times like this.' " Even Sampras's friend and coach, Paul Annacone, admitted there was nothing wrong with Sampras before the match. The world No 1 employs a full-time fitness trainer, Todd Snyder, but he frequently looks physically frail.