Tennis: Seles has the strength to be the big noise

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The Independent Online
IT became clear there would be no play yesterday when the umpires performed a can- can in the Court One stand. Other diversions included a conga and the option - for the first time - of obtaining a refund on the Centre Court and Court One tickets by forgoing the right to buy a similar ticket next year; a better deal than two balls in the Edgbaston Test.

Weather permitting, the men's semi-finals will start at 11.30am today: John McEnroe and Andre Agassi marking the Fourth of July on the Centre Court and Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic featuring on Court One.

The women's final, between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, has been scheduled to follow the McEnroe-Agassi match (not before 2.0pm): a unique super Saturday, all being well, with McEnroe then partnering Michael Stich in a doubles semi-final.

Seles has won her last 41 Grand Slam matches, an impressive statistic which needs to be qualified by two facts: she has yet to win a Wimbledon title, and the only time she has played Graf on grass was in the fourth round here in 1989. On that occasion, she won one game.

The irony of this is that a month earlier, Seles ended Graf's sequence of 41 Grand Slam matches by defeating her in three sets in the final of the French Open. At the time, Graf was on course to accomplish the Grand Slam for a second consecutive year.

Today, the 18-year-old Seles will attempt to pass the defending champion to achieve a chronological Grand Slam, while also completing the third leg of the game's four majors within a calendar year; not something to be grunted at.

Situations have a habit of transforming in a short span of time. Precisely a month ago, Graf was the outsider going into the French Open final against the world No 1. Today, events appear to have conspired against Seles to the extent that she is no longer a favourite, on or off the court.

The first of these events unfolded on the clay at Roland Garros in Paris. Graf, bouyed by the support of the crowd, rediscovered the confidence which carried her to a 'Golden Slam' in 1988 and fought back to push Graf in the most dramatic final set of the year. She saved five match points - four of them at 3-5 - before Seles edged the contest,


This match lasted two and three- quarter hours - 44 minutes longer than the men's final the following day between Jim Courier and Petr Korda (one reason, perhaps, why Richard Krajicek excluded Seles and Graf from his porcine dismissal of female players).

Having retained the French trophy, Seles turned her thoughts towards Wimbledon's silver salver, the prize which she crossed off her list in controversial circumstances last year. Her chief concern was how she would be treated by the media and, subsequently, by the public on her return. The truancy issue turned out to be the least of her worries.

Seles was greeted by 'gruntometers' the moment she stepped on court, the media gimmick taking a serious turn when successive opponents, Nathalie Tauziat and Martina Navratilova, complained to umpires that they could not judge the pace of the ball because of the sounds she was making.

It will be interesting to see how her opponent, the officials and - not least - the crowd react this afternoon. Not the most popular player to begin with, because her unaesthetic style of play and notions of showmanship and glamour are at odds with the norm on the tour, the sudden action over her grunting has created a major dilemma.

Concentrating on making shots and reading them is difficult enough without having to spare a thought for silence, though Seles's opponents would argue that this applies equally to them when the decibels begin to rise on the pressure points.

Graf, after a few traumatic years, is virtually trouble free; healthy, wealthy and wiser. True, her form faltered for a couple matches, against the South African Mariaan De Swardt and in the opening set against the American Patty Fendick, but the formidable forehand was in evidence against Natalia Zvereva in the quarter- finals, and overwhelmed Gabriela Sabatini in the semi-finals.

'I never saw her play so well,' Sabatini said. 'Everything was working for her.' The third- seeded Argentinian had been expected to provide Graf with a severe test after coming close to denying her the championship on this day a year ago. In the event, the match was as one-sided as Sabatini conveyed.

Seles, by contrast, discovered first hand what made Navratilova the most prolific grass-court champion in history and was no doubt relieved that she was playing her now, aged 35, and not a few years ago.

A fear of attempting the volley is something Seles may, or may not, overcome. For the most part, her astounding two-handed passing shots, left and right, are sufficient to dismantle most players on most surfaces, but grass presents special difficulties.

She anticipated that she would have to improvise a few one- handed shots when stretching to retrieve against Graf, and Navratilova gave her ample opportunity to work on the them, particularly in the second and third sets.

'Steffi returns better than I did,' Navratilova said. 'I think Steffi will put more pressure on Monica's serve. I think if Steffi's brave enough and will come in enough, she can win.' At the same time, the nine-times champion agreed that Seles 'is certainly the best player right now' and gave one of the chief reasons why: 'When the chips are down, she is very, very tough.'

Seles and Graf have both improved their serve, and the German is far less shy of the net than she used to be. 'When I have the chance I will try to come in,' she said, emphasising that in general 'I'm just playing my usual: my sliced backhand and going for for my forehand.' This may seem limited to those who do not have to counter it.

Is the surface an advantage? 'I think in a way it is, because she hasn't played as much on the grass as she has on the other surfaces. But so far this tournament she has shown that she is capable of playing very well. It's difficult to say. She's so strong on any surface.'

Seles acknowledges that Graf is the superior athlete, and it is possible that this, coupled with her greater grass-court experience, will give the German an edge. Seles has the wider range of passing shots. If, as in Paris, it comes down to tenacity, Seles is likely to triumph and do more for your correspondent's judgement than did Courier.

We must trust that she learns to curb the sound effects before the women's game begins to go the way of all-in wrestling: You grunt, I'll groan.

------------------------------------------------------------- HEAD TO HEAD: M SELES (Yug) v S GRAF (Ger) ------------------------------------------------------------- (Graf leads series 5-3) ------------------------------------------------------------- Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score ------------------------------------------------------------- 1989 French Open clay semi-final Graf 6-3 3-6 6-3 1989 Wimbledon grass 4th round Graf 6-0 6-1 1989 Brighton carpet final Graf 7-5 6-4 1990 Berlin clay final Seles 6-4 6-3 1990 French Open clay final Seles 7-6 6-4 1991 San Antonio hard final Graf 6-4 6-3 1991 Hamburg clay final Graf 7-5 6-7 6-3 1992 French Open clay final Seles 6-2 3-6 10-8 -------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)