Tennis: Seles sets her sights on Hingis

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MONICA SELES kept her remarkable unbeaten Australian Open record intact as she swept into the semi-finals here yesterday. Seles won nine of the last 10 games to knock out another former world No 1, Steffi Graf, and now plays the defending champion, Martina Hingis, in today's semi- finals. Hingis outplayed the French seventh seed, Mary Pierce, 6-3, 6- 4.

Tommy Haas, attempting to become only the fourth unseeded player to win a Grand Slam tournament since 1984, disposed of the American Vince Spadea in straight sets. The 20-year-old German now plays Yevgeny Kafelnikov for a place in Sunday's final.

The Russian 10th seed and 1996 French Open champion brushed past the American 15th seed, Todd Martin, 6-2, 7-6, 6-2. The 24-year-old said he would never have a better chance to win another Grand Slam. "It is difficult to realise that none of the seeded players are left in the tournament and I am the only one to have won a Grand Slam, so that will help me definitely," Kafelnikov said.

"Three times here before I have been beaten by the eventual champion: Pete Sampras in 1994, Andre Agassi in '95 and Boris Becker in '96."

The 29-year-old Graf, winner of 21 Grand Slam singles titles, began like an express train but was quickly derailed. From serving for the first set at 5-4 she crashed out 7-5, 6-1. Only her pride stood in the way of only her third love set in the past 15 years, and afterwards Seles was harsh in her assessment.

"Steffi's not the best player in the world now," she said when asked if she ranked the match alongside their previous Grand Slam confrontations.

"I can't think of having had such a lapse," said Graf, a four-times Open winner, after dropping eight games in succession. "I just got tired and I couldn't really serve any more," Graf added. "I thought so much about it in the second set that I couldn't put a ball in.

"I got tired and nervous but I didn't know why I couldn't change it around. I told myself to loosen up. I usually can but today I didn't find a way to.

"At 5-4 I was dictating the points and I thought I was playing fine," said the 10th-seeded Graf, whose sliced backhand was destroyed by Seles.

"I didn't really go into this tournament for some reason with enough confidence. I don't know why that was."

Graf still holds a 9-5 lead over Seles in meetings and on the previous occasion they met - at the Chase Championships in New York last November - Graf fought back from a first-set loss to win 1-6 , 6-4, 6-4. The win was Seles' first over Graf since she beat her in the 1993 Australian Open final. Seles won on her debut at Melbourne in 1991, then won the title in 1992 and 1993 before missing the 1994 and 1995 championships while she was recovering after being stabbed by a mentally disturbed fan at a tournament in Hamburg.

Hingis, who has beaten her in six of their eight matches, including two of three at Grand Slam level, said after beating Pierce she was eager to have a crack at Seles, who extended her unbeaten record in Australia to 33 matches.

Hingis, the No 2 seed, took 76 minutes to beat Pierce, the 1995 champion, who went down to her third successive defeat to Hingis at Melbourne Park. Hingis and Pierce have now won five matches each, but Pierce's first three wins came when the Swiss was only 14 years old. "I was attacking her serve very well and had some great returns on the line," Hingis said. "She was standing so far off the middle I had open lines and I went for them."

Pierce said she had decided to stand wide on the court to try to create a sharper angle for her shots. She said unforced errors - 26 to Hingis's 17 - were the main reason for her defeat, but she was also troubled by a pulled stomach muscle and a head cold.

"To beat her you have to be at the top of your game 100 per cent, which I wasn't," Pierce said. "But I've got to give Martina credit. She hit some amazing shots."

Venus Williams won no sympathy yesterday from the chief executive of the women's game, who dismissed her complaints about being deducted a point when her hair beads flew off.

Williams complained after she was warned and then docked a crucial point, resulting in a break of serve in the second set, when some of the beads she wears in her hair shook loose in her 6-4, 6-0 quarter-final defeat to Lindsay Davenport.

Williams refused to shake hands with the umpire, Denis Overberg, at the end of the match, saying she had never been treated in such a way before.

The WTA chief executive, Bart McGuire, said the rule was in place long before the Williams sisters came on the scene and insisted that it had to be adhered to.

"Last night was the first time that it's come up," he said. "It is not strictly the bead rule, it's applicable to any hindrance on the court."

Rule 1, Section 3 states that when a player has created an involuntary hindrance, the first time a let should be called and the player told that thereafter it would be considered deliberate.