Tennis / Australian Open: Graf finds Seles's best is too good

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THE GIGGLE has gone and the grunt is going. What is left is a 19-year-old female athlete of formidable stature, a relentlessly focused winner who triumphed in the Australian Open final after Steffi Graf had threatened to dethrone the champion with a succession of searing forehands.

Monica Seles won her eighth Grand Slam title - and her third in a row at Flinders Park - 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. The score accurately reflects Graf's graph of fortune, the early peak of dominance sliding away in the third set as Seles bore down on her; the inevitability of yet another two-handed punch from either wing splintering the German's wall of concentration and leaving her fatally exposed.

A stroke of brilliance and the momentary lapse it induced altered the course of an often thrilling encounter. Pulled wide to her forehand, Seles was forced to lunge at the ball one-handed, and sent the ball screaming away, cross court, for an outright winner. That left Graf 15-40 and she immediately double-faulted to go 1-2 down in the second set.

But the battle was still on. With a brilliant Melbourne sun illuminating this superb Stadium and a block of placard-waving Germans literally leaping up and down, it was a colourful scene, spoiled only by a couple of dubious line calls which raised Graf's ire. Nevertheless she had Seles 30-40 down at 4-3 only to be left stranded as Seles, with a deft cock of the wrist, ended a cross-court exchange by going up the line.

Losing a long battle on her serve in the sixth game of the third set was the final blow for Graf but by then it had become evident that Seles was winning the mental war. Afterwards Graf admitted that she should have been more aggressive in the second set and the statistics backed her up. Graf only went to the net 12 times but won eight of those points. More significantly she only had to play a volley twice because Seles was so surprised to see her there that she hit the ball out.

Somehow her coach Heinz Gunthardt who, as a former Wimbledon doubles champion, knows all about volleying, has got to instil in Graf the courage to go to the net more often.

Seles, in some ways, is the female equivalent of Jim Courier and there was no doubt as to what Stefan Edberg was intending to do when they met in the men's final today - attack. It is the only way to break up a rock-solid ground game but, as the former Australian No 1 Wendy Turnbull commented, Graf can be very stubborn when it comes to changing tactics.

Naturally there is some reason to believe you must have been doing something right while winning 11 Grand Slam titles but the fact is that Seles is confronting Graf with a new challenge. How quickly she will adapt to meet it is still open to question. When asked about the need to change, her answer could hardly have been more revealing as stubbornness and pride struggled with her innate intelligence.

'I will probably look for a different game plan,' she said, adding quickly: 'I don't have to look for it but I will try different things - probably.'

Meanwhile, Seles, whose on-court exhaling only became audible towards the end of the match, was a composed and gracious winner who looked forward with justifiable relish to future encounters at Roland Garros and even Wimbledon with a worthy one-time champion who may have to learn new tricks.

At least the women's final spared the 15,000 spectators another straight-sets victory. For the first time since the Australian Open became a professional event in 1968, all the men's quarter- and semi-final matches ended in straight-sets wins. Courier's astounding dominance was partially responsible for this. To have made only seven unforced errors against Petr Korda was a barely believable achievement considering the force with which he hammers every shot but even so Michael Stich's serve should have made more headway against him in the semi-final.

One also expected more of Pete Sampras but, yet again, Stefan Edherg's refusal to buckle when behind enabled him to show the young American, who led 4-0 in the first set and 5-2 in the third, just what level of desire is required to go on winning in today's brutally competitive game.

Amazingly there is now the first flicker of a suggestion that British tennis has found someone who understands this. James Baily, from Hampshire, reached the final of the Boy's Singles with a thoroughly impressive 6-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory over James Sekulov, of Australia. Baily, soon to turn 18, battled back from 1-5 down in the first set to force a tie-break and then refused to allow the frustration of losing it deflect him from his hard-hitting path. He has a forehand that could do serious damage even at a much higher level. But let's give him time.

At 15, Jamie Delgado still has plenty of that, which is why his defeat at the hands of Steven Downs, a tall New Zealander almost three years his senior, should be no cause for concern. Delgado has impressed everyone here this week. 'He's a complete natural with very pleasing strokes,' said Peter McNamara, the former world No 8 who is now Tennis Director at Flinders Park. 'Getting two boys into the semi-finals at a Grand Slam is a very promising performance for British tennis.'

AUSTRALIAN OPEN (Melbourne) (seeds in capitals): Women's singles final: M SELES (Yug) bt S GRAF (Ger) 4-6 6-3 6-2.

Men's doubles final: D VISSER (SA) and L WARDER (Aus) bt J FITZGERALD (Aus) and A JARRYD (Swe) 6-4 6-3 6-4.

Mixed doubles final: A SANCHEZ VICARIO (Sp) and T WOODBRIDGE (Aus) bt Z GARRISON-JACKSON and R LEACH (US) 7-5 6-4.

Boys' singles semi-finals: S Downs (NZ) bt J Delgado (GB) 6-1 6-2; J Baily (GB) bt J Sekulov (Aus) 6-7 6-1 6-2.