Judging by her demeanour when advancing to the quarter-finals of the French Open here yesterday, 6-1, 6-1, Monica Seles could have been involved in a routine match against just about anybody. Only the media seemed preoccupied that she was sharing a court with Magdalena Maleeva for the first time since Gunther Parche ended their contest in Hamburg with a kitchen knife three years ago, with Seles leading, 6-4, 4-3.
The only time Seles allowed herself a moment's recall was during the first change-over. "That was really tough," she said, "but I knew that coming into the match. I told myself, 'Just keep going and keep not thinking about it; it's just another tennis match'.''
And so it was. A nervous Maleeva already trailed 0-3 in the opening set when she created two break points, which Seles promptly saved. The Bulgarian No 13 seed was down 1-3 in the second set when a third and final opportunity came her way, Seles responding with a solid serve.
The only other point in dispute during the 53 minutes' play also occurred in that fifth game: a line call over-ruled in Seles's favour at 15-15. "I felt bad about that call," she said. "I felt like she felt that the line call decided the match, which I don't think was the case.''
Maleeva, encouraged beforehand that Seles had struggled for a set against both Naoko Sawamatsu and Sabine Appelmans in the opening rounds, acknowledged that she was outplayed.
"I knew you shouldn't pay attention to the fact that she wasn't playing well, because it's Monica Seles, and when she needs to she will rise to the occasion," Maleeva said. "She might look as if she doesn't move well, but if she gets to the ball, she can do just about anything with it, in any given moment. You have to really play out of your mind to beat her.''
Maleeva was certainly not given the impression that her opponent had an injured shoulder. Seles credited the improvement to the expertise of the WTA Tour trainers: "They have been working on it for many hours, with a lot of deep tissue work, ice and heat changes, a lot of stretches, and some strengthening work. My serve felt great today.''
Seles will anticipate a more difficult time against Jana Novotna, the Czech 10th seed, in tomorrow's quarter-finals. Novotna, who defeated Romania's Irina Spirlea, 6-1, 7-5, was the first opponent to test Seles on her comeback last year, holding two set points in the opening set of their quarter-final at the United States Open. Seles saved the first with a fierce forehand return and the second with a winning volley.
Steffi Graf, co-seeded No 1 with Seles, advanced to the last eight with a straight sets victory against Mary-Joe Fernandez. So what's new? Graf has won all 15 of their matches. On this occasion, however, the American showed glimpses of the determination which enabled her to push Graf to three sets in the 1993 final.
Having lost the opening set, 6-1, Fernandez contrived to raise the level of her performance sufficiently to lead 2-1 and 30-0 with Graf serving in the second set when rain delayed matters for 93 minutes. She broke to love when Graf served for the match at 5-4, then further surprised the defending champion by taking the first four points of a tie-break.
Although Graf re-asserted her authority, she continued to have to rally long and hard, winning the shoot-out, 9-7, on her fourth match point. She will now play the fifth seeded Iva Majoli, having not dropped a set in five matches against the 18-year-old Croatian.
Anke Huber, the runner-up to Seles at the Australian Open in January, failed to make her No 6 seeding, losing to the 22-year-old Karina Habsudova, of Slovakia, 7-5, 6-3. Lindsay Davenport beat Kimiko Date, 3-6, 6-4, 7- 6.
In the men's quarter-finals, Pete Sampras will renew his rivalry with Jim Courier, the No 7 seed. Although Sampras, the world No 1, has won all but three of 17 previous matches against Courier, the fact is that they have only met once before on a clay court. That was in the last eight here in 1994, Courier winning in four sets.
Yesterday he defeated Wayne Ferreira, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. The South African 10th seed was hampered by a strained stomach muscle. Sampras minimised the threat from Scott Draper, an unseeded Australian, by winning 6-4, 7-5, 6-2, in an hour and 50 minutes, something of a sprint after consecutive five-setters.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who defeated Francisco Clavet, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, raised his racket to protect his face on match point and contrived a winning lob. The Russian sixth seed, yet to drop a set, plays Richard Krajicek, the No 13 seed, who beat Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden in straight sets.
Swedish hopes rest with Stefan Edberg, who faces Marc Rosset, the Swiss Olympic champion, after a spectacular victory against Michael Chang on Saturday.
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