Tennis: Seles' comeback gathers momentum

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The Independent Online

reports from New York

The defending champion has been removed, and Monica Seles continues to gain impetus in her drive to cap her comeback by winning the United States Open. The day after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's defeat by Mary Joe Fernandez, Seles advanced to the quarter-finals with a 6-1, 6-4 win against Anke Huber. She now plays Jana Novotna, the fifth seed.

Huber, the German No 11 seed, has achieved the best results against Seles so far, winning five games here just as she did when they played in the quarter-finals of the Canadian Open a fortnight ago. Seles has now won nine consecutive matches since returning to the WTA Tour in Toronto after an absence of 28 months following her stabbing in Hamburg.

In the expected hard-hitting contest, Huber, who was overwhelmed in the first set, improved and detained the second seed for 70 minutes. Seles, who saved three break points in the opening set, exchanged breaks with Huber at the start of the second. The German came close to breaking again when leading 3-2, but lost her serve in the seventh game, Seles requiring five break points.

Seles expressed concern about the blip in her performance in the second set. "When I broke Anke to to go up 1-0 I just had a very weird service game," she said. "My mind wandered off and I felt I let the momentum slip away from me a little bit. It made the second set much harder. I was thinking way too much about it. It was bugging me that I had control of the match and suddenly I let Anke back, and anything could have happened.''

Able to put things into perspective nowadays, Seles took time to console a 14-year-old Hungarian, Edit Pakay, who was crying after losing in the juniors. ``I told her life is not over when you lose. I told her I lost matches and I cried, but you forget it and learn from your loss.''

Sports psychologists would have a field day here when Gabriela Sabatini and Fernandez prepare to meet in the quarter-finals. Fernandez demoralised the Argentinian when last they contested a Grand Slam championship, the quarter-finals of the 1993 French Open, recovering from 1-6, 1-5 and saving five match points before winning, 10-8 in the third set.

Their meeting here is unexpected, Fernandez making another comeback to beat Sanchez Vicario, 1-6, 6-4, 6-4. The Spanish third seed had contested six of the last seven major finals and was projected to meet Steffi Graf in the semi-finals.

Various health problems have afflicted Fernandez, and the No 14 seed's appearance on the court with a precautionary strapping on her left thigh did nothing to diminish the impression that Sanchez Vicario would add to her six wins in their eight previous matches.

Fernandez preferred to recall that she had won their last contest in straight sets in the semi-finals of the 1993 French Open, capitalising on her comeback against Sabatini.

The opening set was decided by a marathon game at 4-1, which Sanchez Vicario won on her 10th break point after 12 deuces and 16 and a half minutes of rallying. It was reminiscent of the Spaniard's 20-minute Wimbledon epic at 5-5 in the third set of the final, which Graf won on the sixth break point after 13 deuces.

Even though Sanchez Vicario wrested the psychological advantage, she was unable to convince her American opponent that the contest was as good as over. Fernandez, who risked charges to the net, came back from 2-4 in the second set and 1-3 in the third, and refused to be dismayed when broken while serving for the match at 5-3.

The result, a reminder that the slender Fernandez is a far tougher than she looks, also confirmed that Sanchez Vicario's advance to the finals of the Australian, French and Wimbledon championships disguised a disappointing season overall.

Andre Agassi and Boris Becker are one match away from meeting in the semi-finals, as they did at Wimbledon. Agassi reached the quarter-finals with a 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 win against Jared Palmer, an American compatriot, and now plays the Czech Petr Korda.

Becker was impressive, advancing to the last l6 with a 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 win against Marc Rosset, of Switzerland, seeded No 13. Becker, the fourth seed, hit 14 aces and and had the audacity to serve underarm. Rosset said he was not ready, and Becker promptly double-faulted. In the fourth round, Michael Chang, the fifth seed, plays the Australian Michael Tebbutt, who beat Richard Krajicek.