Seles denied crowning glory

US Open: Graf has the final say in sport's greatest comeback story as she overpowers her fellow world No 1
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The Independent Online
THERE was a twist in the tale. Steffi Graf asserted herself to halt Monica Seles' amazing gallop at the United States Open, defeating her in yesterday's final, 7-6, 0-6, 6-3. But there were no real losers, and 20,000 specators, along with millions watching on television, could only admire two great athletes as they set about restoring the credibility of women's tennis.

It had gone awry when Seles was stabbed in the back by Gunther Parche, a Graf obsessive, while playing in Hamburg 29 months ago. After that, Seles hid away until she could bring herself to walk back on to a court and face the crowds. Graf won six of the 10 Grand Slam championships played in her rival's absence, each victory perceived by many to be a hollow one.

Through no fault of her own, Graf was cast as the dominating force in a league of diminishing opposition. Others profited, chiefly when she was injured - and a chronic back injury came close to ending her career.

On top of that, she has campaigned through the summer, winning both Wimbledon and the French Open, knowing that investigations of her finances were taking place in Germany. Her father, Peter, is now in prison, accused of tax evasion.

Seles, meanwhile, had been given a joint No 1 ranking with Graf, and had made a senasational comeback, sweeping away all opposition in an unbeaten 11-match sequence which began at the Canadian Open a month ago. Graf was the only player who could provide a true test - and that is what she did in yesterday's magnificent contest.

Seles lost the first set of her comeback after 48 minutes yesterday, having previously been called upon to save a couple of set points against Jana Novotna in the quarter-finals. A fierce service return and a backhand volley had disabused the Czech, but Graf would not be denied.

The German had created the only break points en route to the tie-break, only for Seles to save all five in the eighth game with a series of drives, passes and service winners, the last one following a double-fault. she finsihed the game with an ace, and her confidence held until the closing stages of the shoot-out.

Graf took a 4-2 lead, but then paid for offering her opponent a second serve to pounce upon and double-faulted to present Seles with a set point at 6-5. This was a rare blemish. Graf can hardly have served better than she did up to that point, punishing her opponent with deliveries timed at 100 mph and above after Seles had made a tentative start to the match.

Seles, whose grunting increased as the rallies became tougher, screamed at the umpire when her first serve was called out. Graf then dealt severely with the second delivery, passing Seles with a cross-court forehand, and then pointed with her racket to the spot where she considered the first serve had landed, wide of the line.

Showing signs of being ruffled for the first time since her return, Seles played a forehand long to offer Graf a set point at 6-7. The German then proceeded to out-rally her, Seles putting too much on a cross-court backhand, which landed wide.

Having lost the first set after 48 minutes, Seles won the next six games in 27 minutes, scarcely giving her opponent pause for thought after breaking in the opening game. "My serve had become very tentative, and I wondered how I would get back," Graf said afterwards.

As the match wore on, Seles was increasingly having to play one-handed forehands, but her determination never wavered. Graf had to save a break point in the third game of the third set before prompting Seles to net a forehand on break point. This put Graf 3-1 ahead, and she held firm, winning after an hour and 52 minutes on her second match point, which ended with Seles netting a forehand after a typically hard-fought rally.

Afterwards, Graf saluted her family in the crowd and then embraced Seles at the net. "It's like a dream for me," she said. "It's the biggest win I have ever achieved. Nothing comes close."

She has now won 18 Grand Slam singles titles - at least four at each of the majors - which places her joint third with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova behind the Australian Margaret Court (24) and the American Helen Wills Moody (19).

The grand return

EXHIBITION MATCH (Atlantic City)

bt Martina Navratilova 6-3 6-2

CANADIAN OPEN (Toronto)

1st rd: Kimberly Po 6-0 6-2

2nd rd: Nathalie Tauziat 6-2 6-2

Quarter-final: Anke Huber 6-3 6-2

Semi-final: Gabriela Sabatini 6-1 6-0

Final: Amanda Coetzer 6-0 6-1

US OPEN (New York)

1st rd: Ruxandra Dragomir 6-3 6-1

2nd rd: Erika de Lone 6-1 6-2

3rd rd: Yukio Kamio 6-1 6-1

4th rd: Anke Huber 6-1 6-4

Quarter-final: Jana Novotna 7-6 6-2

Semi-final: Conchita Martinez 6-2 6-2

Final: lost to Steffi Graf 7-6 6-0 3-6

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