Tennis: Decisive Seles shows her class: John Roberts salutes the woman who defended her US Open title with distinction

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The Independent Online
EQUAL pay does not buy the women a showcase here at the United States Open, where the final between Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was treated as little more than a supporting act, sandwiched between the men's semi-finals on an interminable 'Super Saturday'.

Wimbledon occasionally is forced by the weather to allow the men's semi-finals to catch the spotlight before the women take centre stage, as was the case in July. Here the whole thing is planned as a television extravaganza.

'Crock of shit' was the phrase used by Jim Courier to describe the scheduling, and that was before the American lost his position as the world No 1 by being defeated by a compatriot, Pete Sampras, at the end of a long day. Even so, Courier, who left with dollars 125,000 (pounds 65,800) as a beaten semi-finalist, acknowledged that television pays for the right to call the tune, which is why the tournament was able to offer dollars 8.5m (pounds 4.47m) in total prize-money.

The organisers of the marathon did not calculate that Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang, who were sent out first shortly after 11am, would take so long to find the finishing line: five hours and 26 minutes. This is accepted as the longest match in Grand Slam history, though a Davis Cup rubber between John McEnroe and Mats Wilander lasted six hours and 22 minutes.

Seles played for a total of six hours and 11 minutes (seven matches without dropping a set) before receiving the trophy and a cheque for dollars 500,000 (pounds 263,000). She was not sufficiently pressed to do farmyard impressions until playing Mary Joe Fernandez in the semi-finals and Sanchez Vicario in the final, which she won, 6-3, 6-3, in 90 minutes.

Since turning professional three and a half years ago, the 18-year-old Seles has won more than dollars 6m (pounds 3.15m) in official prize-money alone; one reason, perhaps, why she has not been taken off the tour for a spell to eliminate the grunting habit. It is not her fault that she is a better competitor than the majority of her rivals, nor that there is so much money in the sport.

Steffi Graf (removed by Sanchez Vicario), Martina Navratilova, Gabriela Sabatini and Jennifer Capriati each failed to advance to a position where they could block Seles's progress to a seventh Grand Slam singles title.

She has now repeated last year's performance of winning every major title with the exception of Wimbledon. Last year she was neither seen nor heard at the All England Club; this year she was seen but not heard in the final.

While acknowledging that Graf 'played a great match', she remains convinced that a noise abatement group, comprising the media and some of the players, reduced her challenge to little more than a whimper.

It was an experience she is determined to overcome. 'Wimbledon is extra special, and I would love to play some great tennis there,' she said. 'I think when I got to the final, I made the occasion too big. I just thought, 'Whoosh,' and I shouldn't have. I learned a lesson for next year. But I don't want winning Wimbledon to be almost like an obsession, like Lendl did. I want to put it in perspective. I don't want any tournament to be something that I've definitely got to win. If it happens, it was meant to happen; if it doesn't, I am happy.'

Sanchez Vicario's initial success against Seles at the recent Canadian Open (one of the world No 1's three consecutive defeats in finals) encouraged the Spaniard to believe that she could repeat the performance here. The trouble, in both sets, was that she did not start catching up until Seles was too far ahead to be caught.

The defending champion, who had recovered from a virus which affected her mid-way through the tournament, won the first five games before her opponent's attempts to stretch her with shots from corner-to-corner gained success. Sanchez Vicario held serve, and Seles hit a backhand wide across the court to be broken. Sanchez Vicario then had to save four set points on her own serve before Seles served out the set in 42 minutes.

Seles was leading 5-1 in the second set when Sanchez Vicario's tenacity extended the proceedings. The Spaniard saved two match points to hold serve and then broke the champion, whose mind, perhaps, was still disputing a line call while her hands steered the ball into the net. Sanchez Vicario saved four more match points on serve before a net-cord helped the ball sit invitingly for Seles to play a decisive cross-court winner.

Sanchez Vicario said the long wait for the final to go on court had made her impatient. 'I wanted to try to win the points very quick and made a lot of mistakes,' she said. 'The first five games were gone very quick, but after that I realised what I was doing wrong and I started playing better.'

Seles passed some of the time reading. 'I probably know every page of Time and Newsweek,' she said, grateful, no doubt, that they contained matters more weighty than the trials of teenage tennis millionaires.