Seles sets stage for dream final

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The Independent Online
Tennis

JOHN ROBERTS

reports from New York

The amazing comeback has led to the dream final. Monica Seles will duel with Steffi Graf for the United States Open title today, nearly two and a half years after being stabbed in the back on court in Hamburg by Gunther Parche, a deranged Graf supporter.

Seles swept past Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion, in 61 minutes yesterday, 6-2, 6-2, to record her 11th consecutive victory since returning to the WTA Tour in Toronto. She has yet to drop a set.

Graf had already booked her place in the final, although she looked far from comfortable in defeating the ninth-seeded Gabriela Sabatini 7-5, 7-6.

The sun disappeared behind clouds for the first time since the championships started 13 days ago, and the organisers are praying that rain will not disrupt a day of days.

On her return, Seles was given the dispensation of sharing the world No 1 ranking with Graf, and was seeded No 2 to the German here. Today's contest will settle a lot of arguments, Graf having virtually dominated the women's game in Seles' absence.

They last played in the final of the 1993 Australian Open, Seles winning a hard-hitting contest, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Graf leads the head-to-head series, 6-4. When they met in the 1992 Wimbledon final, a muted Seles won only three games.

"My first Grand Slam after being out so long is so special that I cannot put it into words," Seles said. "I think we're both surprised to be in the final. I know I certainly am."

Graf has had to deal with a chronic back injury and her father's imprisonment, awaiting trial on tax evasion charges. Even yesterday her performance was hampered by a foot injury.

The German appeared even more surprised than Seles to have advanced so far in the tournament. "How could I expect to be there?" she said. "I didn't feel the odds were for me. I can't say how unexpected this is.

"Right now what I have achieved already in the last two weeks means more than when I went through Paris and Wimbledon. It's definitely the most demanding time of my life. It's taken a lot out of me. I'm playing for a lot of people," Graf said.

Seles has won eight Grand Slam singles titles. Graf, with the Wimbledon and French Open championships to her credit this year, is attempting to lift her 18th Grand Slam title. She will need to raise the level of her game after labouring to overcome Sabatini.

The Argentinian did not have a great foundation on which to build her confidence for her 40th meeting with the German, having lost 28 of their previous encounters, including the last seven. Graf had dealt particularly severely with her at the French Open in June, conceding only one game in the quarter-finals.

The score, 6-1, 6-0, was the same when Sabatini lost to Seles in the semi-finals of the Canadian Open in Toronto three weeks ago. "Against Seles, I didn't have any chance really," she said. "I didn't play bad, but she was playing winners very close to the lines and not missing very much. That is the difference."

Yesterday, a combination of Graf's errors - 42 of them - a sore left foot and Sabatini's eagerness on all but the decisive points detained the German on the court for an hour and 38 minutes. It ought to have been longer.

Sabatini led 3-1 in the second set, only to be broken twice. She also led 3-1 in the tie-break, but double-faulted for the sixth time to beckon Graf back into the shoot-out, which she won with a stop volley, 7-5.

Seles had her serve broken once by Martinez, when leading 4-0 in the second set. By then the match was as good as over, Seles having served well. Hitting marginally more winners than errors, she relied on her opponent to be drawn into making mistakes.

She has now beaten the Spaniard in all nine of their matches. "I think Monica is playing really good, hitting the ball very hard from both sides," Martinez said. "Steffi is going to have to play very good to beat her."

We must hope that the weather does not interrupt the flow of what promises to be an exciting climax to the tournament. Crowding so much into so-called "Super Saturday" - sandwiching the women's singles final between the men's semis at the behest of television - is hardly sensible at the best of times.

Results, Sporting Digest,

page 27

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