Tennis: Seles turns on the power to stun Hingis

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The Independent Online
MONICA SELES was absolutely radiant on the Centre Court at the French Open yesterday, reminding the tennis world of the tenacious excellence that was all but lost the day she was stabbed in the back while playing in Hamburg five years ago.

Martina Hingis, the latest teenage sensation, might have defeated Seles in their five previous matches, but in reality this was the first occasion on which the 24-year-old former world No 1 had been more than a shadow of the great player she was.

The experience, a 6-3, 6-2 defeat, rudely interrupted the 17-year-old Swiss's quest to complete her collection of the four Grand Slam singles titles and put Seles in tomorrow's final against the 26-year-old Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, just like in the good old days. All that remains is for Steffi Graf to return for Wimbledon in little more than a fortnight's time, a prospect which appears more promising by the day.

Before readers hasten to jog your correspondent's memory that Seles did soar into the final of the 1995 United States Open on her comeback, 27 months after the attack in Germany, and actually won the Australian Open in January, 1996, it must be emphasised that her performance yesterday was reminiscent of the electricity she brought to sport when winning the first eight of her Grand Slam titles.

The circumstances surrounding Seles's appearance here only 12 days after the death of her father and coach, Karolj, added a poignant dimension to her victory, which she described as, "A little bit of sunshine after so many clouds".

Her immediate reaction after securing the match point, after 69 minutes, was to turn and make a clenched fist salute to her mother, Esther, who was seated beside her agent, Mark McCormack, who has played an important role in her rehabilitation as a player and a personality.

A year ago, Hingis defeated Seles in the semi-finals here, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, which was acknowledged as a creditable performance by the Yugoslavian- born American, given her struggle to maintain a high level of fitness and commitment during her father's long illness.

Moreover, Hingis already had become the youngest Grand Slam champion of the century in Australia. Although lacking the stamina to prevent Iva Majoli from beating her in the final at Roland Garros, Hingis went on to win Wimbledon and the US Open and to make a successful title defence in Australia.

Yesterday, having advanced to the semi-finals with a straight sets win against her 17-year-old American rival, Venus Williams, Hingis finally discovered the Seles she marvelled at as a nine-year-old watching matches on television.

Here, grunting with a vengeance, was the two-handed demon of the courts, raking the lines and pinpointing the corners with her ground strokes, and prepared to run down every seemingly lost cause.

"There are players, like Mary Pierce and Venus, who have power like that, but not from every corner of the court, as Monica has," Hingis said. "She just hits everything very hard and very aggressive from every part of the court. Usually she makes more mistakes, or she gets a little bit tired, but today she just didn't. She's back, in better shape, probably, than ever.''

Seles, while complimenting the work of her new coach, the Australian Gavin Hopper, stressed that she is only at the beginning of a fresh commitment. "I want to play even better than I did in 1990, and all those years," she said, "but in the past five years some things were just more important in my life to concentrate on the tennis game.

"Hopefully nothing beyond my control will happen to me in the next few years, so I can work really hard. I really feel that's where my game will have to go, because women's tennis has changed so much, and it's going to keep changing. You have to change with the times.''

Asked again if she had dedicated her performance to her father, she said, "No, my dad just really wanted me to do what I wanted to do. Tennis is one of the things that I love to do. I miss him tremendously, but, win or lose, it doesn't make a difference in me thinking about my dad.''

Seles has won all but two of her 16 previous matches against Sanchez Vicario, who defeated the American Lindsay Davenport, 6-3, 7-6, in a semi- final memorable for 15 serve breaks and 85 unforced errors in 144 points. Davenport was responsible for 56 of them.