Tennis / Australian Open: Majestic Graf turns on power

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The Independent Online
AT 1.44am here yesterday, it was finally settled: the women's semi- finals at the Australian Open tomorrow would be contested between Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

A tired but relieved Sabatini left the sparsely populated Centre Court to catch some sleep, leaving Mary Pierce to fret over her failure to convert three match points in the second set of their quarter- final, which the Argentinian third seed won 4-6, 7-6, 6-0.

The start of the women's night shift - which opened with Seles defeating the unseeded Julie Halard - had been delayed for 75 minutes by a men's doubles match, transferred under the Centre Court roof after being interrupted by rain on Court One with the score at 8-7 in the fifth set.

Danie Visser and Laurie Warder eventually defeated Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg, 22-20, only six games short of the championship record, after five hours and 16 minutes.

Seles described the switch of courts as 'ridiculous'. Visser was unimpressed. 'Who cares?' the South African responded when asked if it bothered him that the women were waiting to play.

'It's the first time in my life I've had to play that late,' Sabatini said. She could have been away sooner but for missing a set point at 5-3 in the second set, requiring five more to clinch a nerve-wracking tie-break, 14-12.

While acknowledging Sabatini's resilience, Pierce, the 10th seed, still could not believe that she had lost. 'I can't be happy,' the 18-year- old from France said. 'I thought I had won the match in the tie-break, but she never gave up.'

Pierce had time to agonise over the match points, which came and went at 7-6, 8-7 and 10-9 in the tie- break, while Sabatini left the court to change her shirt. The French player was barely in the final set, a bruised finger adding to her woe at 0-4.

By advancing to the semi-finals Seles became the fourth female player to pass the dollars 7m ( pounds 4.6m) mark in official career prize-money (the others are Martina Navratilova, Graf and Chris Evert). But at least the latest fistful was not won as easily as whole sackfuls of the rest.

The 19-year-old Seles, who aims to win the title for a third consecutive year, dropped her first set of the campaign on being faced with the hefty shots and impressive spirit of Halard, her French opponent in the quarter-finals.

Matching Seles blow for blow in a fascinating second set, Halard saved three match points and forced a tie-break, which she won, 7-5, causing the world No 1 to squeal in frustration.

The contest then reverted to script, Seles not losing another game and conceding only seven points to win 6-2, 6-7, 6-0. Even so, Halard, ranked No 29 in the world and No 3 in France, had reason to be pleased with her challenge. She had won only one game in her previous match with Seles, at the Virginia Slims Championships in 1991.

At the start of play, almost 15 hours before the finish, Graf showed signs of peaking, defeating Jennifer Capriati, 7-5, 6-2, and Sanchez Vicario scurried about the baseline to greater purpose than Mary Joe Fernandez, eliminating last year's finalist, 7-5, 6-4.

It will be the Spaniard's third consecutive appearance in the semi-finals, and she reasons that she can only improve, having failed to win a set against Seles last year or against Jana Novotna in 1991.

Though Sanchez Vicario has won only three of her 19 matches with Graf, the victories were achieved in Grand Slam events: the final of the 1989 French Open (7-6, 3-6, 7-5), the semi-finals of the 1991 French Open (6-0, 6-2) and the quarter-finals of last year's United States Open (7-6, 6-3).

The success in New York was the Spaniard's first against Graf on a surface other than the slow, red clay of Paris, and the rubberised concrete here at Flinders Park is similar to the courts at Flushing Meadow. That said, the Wimbledon champion's 49 errors - some of the most crucial with the forehand - gave Sanchez Vicario the incentive to go for her shots.

Graf was in majestic form against Capriati in a match which elevated the women's game (a rarity in the tournament so far) until the 16-year-old American began to wilt in the second set.

The first hour was spectacular, both players moving nimbly about the court, exchanging explosive shots. They also exchanged breaks of serve in the first four games, continuing to hammer away until Graf raised her performance and denied her opponent the opportunity of a tie-break.

In that seventh game, Graf's breathtaking play was reminiscent of her most impressive moments in 1988, when she achieved the Grand Slam and an Olympic gold medal. She unnerved Capriati by zooming a forehand service return into the corner, and surprised her opponent, the spectators, and probably herself, by curtailing a couple of punishing rallies with imperious volleys, forehand and backhand.

Those shots would have done credit to the great Margaret Court, an Australia Day guest with Rod Laver for the unveiling of bronze busts to honour their accomplishments.

The perfectionist in Graf may have cost her a service break in the third game of the second set. She was so annoyed at steering a backhand return wide on the concluding point of the second game that her concentration wavered, and Capriati pounced.

It was the American's last success. Graf spent the remainder of the match out-manoeuvring her opponent, and fatigue did the rest. The residual affects of the virus which threatened Capriati's progress in the opening week may have taken a toll, but when it came to running down shots in the later stages, Graf was the livelier retriever by far.

'I was running around a lot,' Capriati said, 'but it wasn't like I was feeling ill or anything like that. She had an answer for everything. The only time I have ever hit that hard with somebody was Monica (Seles), two years ago at the US Open. It was real intense.'

Two points before Capriati was broken in the concluding game someone in the crowd shouted, 'Forget the money, Jennifer, do it for your country]' It had perhaps escaped his notice that the only occasion the American had beaten Graf in six previous meetings was in the final of the Barcelona Olympics.

----------------------------------------------------------------- WOMEN'S SEMI-FINAL LINE-UP ----------------------------------------------------------------- M Seles (Yug) v G Sabatini (Arg) S Graf (Ger) v A Sanchez Vicario (Sp) -----------------------------------------------------------------

AUSTRALIAN OPEN (Melbourne): Women's singles quarter-finals: S GRAF (Ger) bt J CAPRIATI (US) 7-5 6-2; A SANCHEZ VICARIO (Sp) bt M J Fernandez (US) 7-5 6-4; M SELES (Yug) bt J Halard (Fr) 6-2 6-7 6-0; G SABATINI (Arg) bt M PIERCE (Fr) 4-6 7-6 6-0.

Men's doubles quarter-finals: J FITZGERALD (Aus) and A JARRYD (Swe) bt B Garnett and T Middleton (US) 7-5 6-3 6-4; M KRATZMANN and W MASUR (Aus) bt G Muller (SA) and J Sanchez (Sp) 6-3 6-0 6-7 6-2; D VISSER (SA) and L WARDER (Aus) bt J GRABB and R RENEBERG (US) 6-3 6-4 4-6 4-6 22-20.

Women's doubles third round: P FENDICK (US) and A STRNADOVA (Cz Rep) bt F LABAT and P TARABINI (Arg) 6-4 6-4; J HETHERINGTON (Can) and K RINALDI (US) bt K Date (Japan) and M Jaggard-Lai (Aus) 6-3 6-3; G FERNANDEZ (US) and N ZVEREVA (Belar) bt R FAIRBANK-NIDEFFER (SA) and J RICHARDSON (NZ) 6-4 6-0; C MARTINEZ and A SANCHEZ VICARIO (Sp) bt K MALEEVA (Bul) and N TAUZIAT (Fr) 6-3 3-0 ret; M J FERNANDEZ and Z GARRISON-JACKSON (US) bt Y Basuki (Indon) and N Miyagi (Japan) 6-2 6-2.

Mixed doubles second round: J Hetherington and G Michibata (Can) bt K Radford (Aus) and P Norval (SA) 6-2 6-4; N ZVEREVA (Belar) and K JONES (US) bt M Bollegraf and T Nijssen (Neth) 5-7 6-4 6-1; Z GARRISON- JACKSON and R LEACH (US) bt R McQuillan and D MacPherson (Aus) 6-3 7-6; E Smylie and J Fitzgerald (Aus) bt M Jaggard-Lai (Aus) and J Eltingh (Neth) 6-2 6-3.