Seles turns back the clock to topple Williams

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The Independent Online

Monica Seles was husky-voiced as she relived the highlights of her quarter-final victory over Venus Williams at the Australian Open here yesterday. She woke up with a fever and sore throat, but still found the energy to beat Williams for the first time, knocking out the No 2 seed and tournament favourite.

The 28-year-old Seles, who will meet Martina Hingis in the semi-finals tomorrow, was characteristically modest about her 6-7, 6-2, 6-3 win. "Venus is such a great champion. I just got lucky on a couple of points there," she said. "It was a tough match and I was just really happy at the end that it went my way."

Williams, who had beaten Seles on six previous occasions, received treatment for a strain during the match and the 21-year-old appeared to have her mind elsewhere. She said that the injury prevented her from chasing balls as determinedly as usual, but added: "She deserved to win. She went out there and was the better player today. Who knows, maybe she'll take the whole Slam home – that would be an exciting story. She deserves it. I had pain in the hamstring area – I wasn't quite sure what was going on. It hasn't been the best tournament for me health-wise."

The smart money would normally be on Hingis, the No 3 seed, to go through to Saturday's final, but anything could happen in this most unpredictable of tournaments. Last year, Jennifer Capriati staged her miraculous comeback to win her first Grand Slam title. Could it be Seles's turn to shine this year?

The 28-year-old left-hander, fully fit for the first time in years, is a four- times Australian Open champion with a 41-2 win-loss record at Melbourne Park. But she last took the title in 1996, her only Grand Slam success since returning to the Tour following a 27-month absence after she was stabbed by a fanatical Steffi Graf supporter in 1993.

Were the Yugoslav-born American to script a fairy-tale to equal that of Capriati, this would be a fitting place to do it, for Seles is the darling of the Melbourne crowd. Yesterday they gave her vocal support as she overwhelmed Williams, the reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion, with guts and precision.

The No 8 seed recovered from the loss of the first set tie-break, breaking serve early in the second set and again in a long fifth game with six deuces. Williams, playing without focus or conviction, sent a forehand into the net to end their first Grand Slam encounter – and a 24-match winning streak built up since last July.

Seles said it would be "great" to turn the clock back and add another Grand Slam to her total of nine, but acknowledged that Hingis would be a tricky opponent. "Martina is a very tough player, and she has played some of her best tennis coming into the Open," she said.

Hingis – who leads 12-4 in their previous meetings, although Seles has won the last two – had an easier time yesterday, taking 1hr 13min to beat Adriana Serra Zanetti, an unseeded Italian, 6-2, 6-3.

While Seles held the Australian Open title from 1991 to 1993, the 21-year-old Swiss player has chalked up a more recent trio of successes, winning every year from 1997 to 1999. The latter was her last Grand Slam triumph in any arena, however, and she is thirsting to put the drought of the last three years behind her.

Hingis is playing in only her second event since undergoing ankle surgery last October for three torn ligaments, and she said that the break – which forced her to relinquish her long-term world No 1 ranking – did her good. "It's nice to have time to regroup and just relax, and then go 100 per cent behind everything," she said.

The air in Melbourne agrees with her, and so do the Rebound Ace courts; she has two of them at home in Switzerland. "Every game I've played, I feel better, more secure in my shots," said Hingis, who successfully defended her adidas International title in Sydney just before the Open. "Now I really have the belief that I can go all the way, and that's good to have."

Looking ahead to playing Seles, she said: "Monica is definitely one of the best players, especially here at this tournament. She won four times and has a great record, only two losses – one against me, so that was good."

Tim Henman's fourth-round conqueror, Jonas Bjorkman, was himself overcome by a fellow Swede and close friend, Thomas Johansson. Johansson, who won 6-0, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, will meet Jiri Novak in the semi-finals after the Czech beat the Austrian Stefan Koubek, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, in a one-sided match.

With the men's draw denuded of top seeds, Johansson was optimistic about his prospects of winning a first Grand Slam. "I think if I play the kind of tennis I've been doing the last couple of days, I might have a good chance," he said.

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