Seles finds the perfect solution

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The Independent Online


reports from New York

Oops! Monica Seles had to face the first set points of her comeback yesterday, when she advanced to the semi-finals of the United States Open, where she will play Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion.

Jana Novotna was serving, and before anybody mentions the Czech's reputation for losing her nerve at crucial moments, that was not the case here. Seles's resolve enabled her to produce a telling response.

The second seed snatched the first opportunity away from Novotna, passing her with a fiercely-driven forehand service return, and the second by out-manoeuvring her and playing a winning forehand volley. "It was very gutsy play from her," the fifth-seeded Novotna acknowledged. "She didn't worry at all what the score was, and just went for her shots. This is the Monica we know from the past.''

Seles agreed that "the two shots at that point were amazing", and admitted that "every shot up to that point was terrible." She decided to end the frustration. "I thought I had had enough of this and shouldn't be so tight. I didn't even think, I just swung at the ball.''

Having seen her advantage disappear, the Czech hit a forehand long, and Seles broke to level at 6-6 with a forehand down the line. Though Novotna recovered from 2-4 to 4-4 in the tie-break, Seles created two set points with a one-handed backhand return for 6-4, and secured the second of them with winning serve to take the shoot-out 7-5. The set lasted 59 minutes, and Seles required only 28 minutes more to complete a 7-6, 6-2 victory.

We were thus denied the chance to see how Seles would react if seriously extended for the first time in 10 matches since returning to the game in Toronto after a 28-month absence following her stabbing in Hamburg.

Apart from Martina Navratilova, who was beaten in straight sets when providing the opposition for an exhibition match in Atlantic City, Novotna was the first player to confront Seles with the challenge of an attacking style.

Asked if fitness would have been a factor had Seles had been placed in the situation of having to play three sets to win, Novotna said: "It is hard to tell if she is really fit or if she is not fit. Obviously she is playing very well and she is handling the heat and everything very well.

"I think the reason why she can do this is because of the way that she plays. She is the one who is directing the game. You don't have that much time. You don't have the angle to stretch her. Physically, and mentally, it is very difficult to play her. We will see if she makes it to the finals. Steffi could make her run around.''

The 21-year-old Seles considers that her first serve is the only part of her game that has improved, chiefly because of the height and weight she has gained during the past two year. It let her down in the opening set yesterday. She was broken three times, double-faults costing her two of the games.

Novotna, who was also broken three times, led 4-2, but she played so poorly when serving in the eighth game that she did not win a point. Seles, who missed the ball when attempting to smash on the second point on the 11th game, twice netted to give Novotna the chance to serve the set out.

Once the tie-break was over, the match followed a familiar pattern, and Novotna's confidence was not improved when she smashed a ball into the net from close range on the way to being broken in the third game of the second set. Seles required three match points in the eighth game, finishing with a forehand drive.

Martinez, the fourth seed, won her quarter-final against Brenda Schultz- McCarthy, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2. Seles has won their eight previous matches.

Steffi Graf, the top seed, plays Gabriela Sabatini, whose most notable victory against the German was in the 1990 final.

Graf's compatriot, Boris Becker became the first to advance to the men's singles semi-finals. The fourth seed defeated Patrick McEnroe, 6-4, 7- 6, 6-7, 7-6, the unseeded American imitating his older brother's temper in a match lasting just over four hours.