Novotna no longer in awe of Seles

FRENCH OPEN: Sampras reaches the semi-finals after another marathon with his American rival
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During a change-over a few games from defeat here yesterday, Monica Seles looked like a little girl lost. She could not understand why she was scared to go for her shots. It was not something she had experienced before.

A few yards the other side of the umpire's chair, Jana Novotna was also in a state of contemplation. This was not going to be one of those occasions, she resolved, that she would blow a commanding lead.

Novotna's victory, 7-6, 6-3, to advance to the semi-finals of the French Open at Seles's expense may not have been part of the original script, but it suited the course of the match perfectly.

While Novotna played close to potential, and crucially held her nerve, Seles was barely a shadow of the player who dominated the championships for three years before her career was brutally interrupted by Gunther Parche and his knife in April 1993.

The defeat of Seles, three matches ahead of her projected showdown with the co-seeded Steffi Graf, may have provided the dramatic result, but the raw action took place over on the Centre Court, which was reserved for the men for the day.

Pete Sampras and Jim Courier engaged in another mighty duel, reminiscent of that emotional night at the 1995 Australian Open when Sampras broke down and cried during the fifth set after thinking about his coach, Tim Gullikson, who was terminally ill. Gullikson died a month ago.

Yesterday, Sampras was able to hold back his tears until the interviews. Once again, he had recovered to win from two sets down, this time 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 after three hours and 31 minutes.

There were moments when Sampras displayed spectacular shot-making, others when he flabbergasted Courier with improvisation, such as in the eighth game of the fourth set. Having saved one of two break points with an ace, Sampras broke a string making his next serve. He changed his racket, and delivered an ace with his second serve.

In the closing moments, Sampras doubled up with fatigue before preparing to serve, and Courier talked to himself while walking to the back of the court, saying: "The guy's nearly in his grave, and he's serving 190mph bullets." Sampras finished the match with an ace.

Courier had beaten Sampras on the only other occasion they played on clay, in the quarter-finals here two years ago. Sampras, his confidence boosted, now faces the sixth-seeded Russian, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who dropped his first set in defeating Richard Krajicek, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6- 2.

Court Suzanne Lenglen, where the women's singles quarter-finals were played, did not exist when Seles last won the trophy in 1992, defeating Steffi Graf in a classic final, 10-8 in the deciding set.

Until yesterday, Graf was the only opponent to have beaten her on the clay courts of Stade Roland Garros, and that was when Seles made her debut in Paris as a 15-year-old in 1989, reaching the semi-finals.

Later that year, Novotna defeated Seles in the semi-final of the European Indoors event in Zurich. The Czech had lost four consecutive matches against Seles before yesterday, and in the meantime had built a reputation for choking on the big occasions. Most notorious was her collapse in the 1993 Wimbledon final when serving for 5-1 against Graf in the final set.

Seles, whose shoulder injury had restricted her to only one match in four months before the championships, offered no excuse except her poor play. "On the key points I just played very scared," she said. "I was not attacking, I was just staying there and hitting it back for her and waiting for her to miss.''

That did not happen often, which is why Seles is preparing for Wimbledon and Novotna is waiting for Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semi-finals. The Spanish fourth seed was forced to retrieve long and hard yesterday in beating the unseeded Slovakian, Karina Habsudova, 6-2, 6-7, 10-8.

Graf enjoyed an hour in the sun while defeating the fifth-seeded Iva Majoli, of Croatia, 6-3, 6-1. The defending champion now meets Conchita Martinez, the No 3 seed, who eliminated Lindsay Davenport, 6-1, 6-3.

French Open results, Sporting Digest, page 23