Monica's meltdown

John Roberts recounts the day when a fairy-tale comeback was cheated of a happy ending

Aesthetically speaking, the home of the United States Open bears little or no comparison to Wimbledon. Flushing Meadows, New York, was once used for dumping and burning Brooklyn's rubbish - F Scott Fitzgerald called it " a valley of ashes" in The Great Gatsby - but the place atones by staging many of the most exciting tennis matches imaginable, despite weird scheduling.

Female players, while treated equally with men in terms of the tournament's prize money - $575,000 went to each of this year's singles champions - seem almost to be regarded as an afterthought on the day of the final. Their lot, on what is known as "Super Saturday", is to be sandwiched between the two men's singles semi-finals to satisfy television's demands.

But no one doubted which match rated top billing on 9 September - Steffi Graf versus Monica Seles. The two greatest players of their generation, jointly ranked No 1 in the world, had played their way to the most eagerly awaited contest for years.

An American commentator said Seles and Graf had bothbeen stabbed in the back: Seles, in reality, 29 months earlier, by a fanatical Graf fan who wanted to see the German restored to No 1 in the world rankings; Graf, figuratively, by her father/ manager Peter, who was in prison accused of evading millions of marks in tax on her earnings.

Graf had won six of the 10 major championships played in Seles's absence since the stabbing in Hamburg in 1993, each victory perceived by many to have been hollow. Through no fault of her own, Graf had come to be regarded as the dominating force in a diminished league in which other competitors prospered chiefly when she was unfit.

Seles, restored physically and mentally and granted a share of the No 1 ranking which had been hers at the time of the attack, had altered only slightly. Aged 19 when assaulted, she was, at 21, an inch and a half taller - 5ft 11in. She had also gained a few pounds around the middle and had provoked a niggling knee injury trying to run them off.

Otherwise, she was as we remembered - the flurry of two-handed strokes, the screwing up of the nose in concentration, the grunting (perhaps not so loud or frequent as before, but given vent if the going got tough), and the giggling, which continued to punctuate interviews.

The credibility of women's tennis was at stake when Graf and Seles eventually made their way to the Stadium Court. The fact that Seles, although rusty, had won the 11 matches of her comeback without losing a set hardly reflected credit on her opponents. If Graf, her equal, also suffered humiliation, potential sponsors could have been lost to the sport.

However, all these misgivings were cast aside when the action began, 20,000 spectators thrilling to an oscillating contest. At the end, only one point separated the players. And it was in Graf's favour - at 7-6, 0-6, 6-3.

More than two years of pain and anguish seemed to evaporate as Graf and Seles embraced - a day of splendour in a valley of ashes.

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