Tennis: Graf sets up battle of champions

French Open semi-finals: Seles broken by the spirit of her old rival while Hingis ends Sanchez's hopes of repeat

GREAT CHAMPIONS command respect, whatever their age, and the French Open is preparing to greet a bridging of the generation gap with roars of approval tomorrow. Steffi Graf, approaching 30, and Martina Hingis, 18, will meet for the first time in a Grand Slam singles final.

The joy on Graf's face after overcoming her long-time rival Monica Seles yesterday, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, had nothing to do with thoughts about the possibility of winning the title for a sixth time and increasing her Grand Slam haul to 22. Her happiness came with the sheer relief of reaching another major final, something she feared might not happen again after so many set-backs with injuries.

We have to go back two years and eight months for Graf's last Grand Slam final, a triumph against Seles at the United States Open in 1996. There has been rain on Graf's parade since the heavens opened over Flushing Meadows during the presentation ceremony.

Hingis, it may be argued, has capitalised prodigiously since the waning of both Graf and Seles, rising to No 1 in the world and winning five Grand Slam singles titles, every one except the French Open. Lack of match fitness after injury cost her the final against an inspired Iva Majoli in 1997, and complacency resulted in a rude awakening against Seles in last year's semi-finals.

Trimmer, and more mature in her attitude towards her matches, if not always towards fellow players, Hingis continued to exercise her customary superiority over Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the defending champion, defeating the 27-year-old Spaniard 6-3, 6-2, after 63 minutes.

Much as the spectators admired Hingis's confidence in forcing Sanchez- Vicario to scurry in vain, their hearts went out to Graf, who has won more matches than any other woman at Stade Roland Garros (83 out of 93), and has always played with dignity and alacrity from first point to last.

Seles, seeded No 3 to Graf's No 6, brought the best out of her opponent, as always, although the Serbian-born American had more difficulty coping with a tricky wind, which not only played havoc with some of the shots but also blew clay dust into the players' faces.

Given the luck of Graf's double-faulting in losing the second game of the match, Seles took a 3-0 lead, and continued to play with greater aggression even after the German broke back for 3-2. That is why Seles was able to win the first set tie-break comfortably, 7-2.

Graf broke for 3-1 in the second set and had three break points for 5- 2, missing with a couple of service returns. Although Seles threatened to pull the set round by creating two break points at 2-4, she was unable to convert either of them, and Graf went on to level the match.

Emboldened by this Graf began to drive Seles farther back than earlier with her fearsome forehand, beautifully sliced backhand and deadly drop shots. But Seles, although broken in the opening game of the third set, continued to battle, recovering the break for 2-2.

Last time they met, at the Australian Open in January, Graf was stricken by nerves. Apart from the odd tightening of the muscles during that fourth game of the final set, there was no indication of Graf capitulating this time. In fact she dropped only one point in her last three service games, breaking Seles for 5-4 with a solid return.

"It feels great to have reached the final," Graf said. "IIt was something I really did not believe I would be able to do when I arrived here. Today it was again a very tough, close match. I was able to take a few risks when I needed to, especially near the end of the third set. It was a great atmosphere."

Seles admitted that she was unsettled by the conditions - "I was fighting Steffi and I was fighting the wind at the same time" - but gave her opponent credit. "It came down to one or two points, and those times Steffi just played better. The last two games, Steffi played more aggressively and I played more defensively." She added: "I think it should be a very good final. Both of them are playing very well."

Hingis has won only two of her eight matches against Graf, on clay in the quarter-finals of the 1996 Italian Open and on an indoor carpet court in Tokyo earlier this year.

"Steffi hasn't been to a Grand Slam final for two years, so I hope she'll be a little bit nervous, even though she's been there so many times," Hingis said.

Graf considered that possibility for at a split second. "I won't," she said.

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