Tennis: Seles still calling the shots: As the world No 1 nets yet another title, John Roberts reflects on a lack of variety at the top of women's tennis

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The Independent Online
AT THE highest level of the women's game - matches between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf - serve and velocity has replaced serve and volley to such an extent that many observers yearn for a wider variety in the selection of shots.

This can be the only criticism of Saturday's stirring final at the Australian Open, which was won by Seles, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, the world No 1 equalling Graf's feat of lifting the title three years in succession.

The problem is that both players have been driving the ball from baseline with enormous success since childhood, so it is not easy for either of them to make major adjustments now. This is particularly true in the case of Graf, who will be 24 in June, an almost pensionable age for a female player nowadays.

Graf won only two points with volleys, both delivered in the final set. With the first, she saved a break point before losing her serve for 4-2, and with the second she created a break point in the next game, Seles responding with an ace timed at 102mph (only 10mph slower than Stefan Edberg's fastest in the tournament). Four volleys featured in Seles's repertoire.

A reluctance to venture to the net is not the only flaw in Graf's game. The Wimbledon champion continues to slice her shots on the backhand, and Seles was happy to nag at this throughout the contest. It is not that Graf is incapable of driving topspin shots on the backhand to complement her booming forehand, any more than she is unable to volley.

All this must seem like carping, given that Graf has won 11 of 18 Grand Slam finals and Seles has now won eight of nine (only Wimbledon has eluded her so far). The point is that both players are aware of their shortcomings, and one of the reasons for them: a dread of making a fool of themselves.

Seles admitted as much when discussing the volley before Wimbledon last June. 'I just can't go through with it,' she said. 'I just get scared. I am doing it well in practice. But in a match, as soon as the pressure's there, I don't have the guts to go for it. If they pass me, I feel kind of embarrassed. They'll say, 'Wow] Look at Monica; she's the No 1 player and her volleys are not so good'. I'll have to get over that.'

One aspect of the 19-year-old Seles' game has altered. Having been brought up hitting two- handed on both the forehand and backhand wings, she is now prepared to play one-handed on the forehand side when necessary. She may look awkward stretching with the left arm, but the result can be impressive (spectators gasped at one particular shot whipped down the line in the final).

While Graf can volley and pump backhands with abandon in practice, she has not been persuaded to loosen the shots in competition. She acknowledges that she needs to be more aggressive, and agreed that her reticence probably cost her the match on Saturday. 'I am not very happy about how I played,' she said. 'I should have come in more, but you learn out of it.'

Seles, who mixed the pace of her serves shrewdly, appeared to be losing confidence towards the end of the first set, but recovered with characteristic vigour. In the end, it was Graf who lost heart. For this reason, the match fell short of their epic at the French Open (10-8 to Seles in the third set), but was enthralling none the less. So much so that Seles' grunting passed unnoticed.

(Photograph omitted)

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