Winner carries greater burden U.S OPEN

September 10, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- Of all the possible endings to the strange and sad story of Monica Seles, the least likely, surely, was that Seles would play an opponent meriting even more sympathy in the first Grand Slam final of her comeback.

But that was what happened yesterday when Seles played Steffi Graf in the U.S. Open final.

Seles was a living martyr for 27 months after being stabbed in the back during a changeover in 1993. But when the two players hugged at the net yesterday at the end of their match, which Graf won in three sets, it was Graf, not Seles, who most needed comforting.

As devastating as Seles' problems were, they're clearly behind her. She has ghostbusted her demons. She is now the happiest person on the planet. She didn't even mind losing yesterday, claiming she was "ecstatical" at having made the final of a Grand Slam event so soon.

Graf, on the other hand, is an emotional disaster, a total wreck, for one very good reason: Her family life is crumbling around her.

She, not Seles, was the tragic figure yesterday.

Graf's father wasn't at the match because he is in jail in Germany, having been arrested last month on suspicion of income-tax evasion. Huge sums of money reportedly are involved. Graf also is being investigated, although it is widely thought in Germany that her father is solely culpable. In any case, German reporters staked out Graf's New York apartment throughout the Open.

When a reporter asked her after yesterday's match about her chances of seeing her father any time soon, she answered the question -- "very slight" -- and then fled the interview room in tears.

All of which is why it was remarkable, no less than that, that she was able to beat Seles and win the Open for the fourth time.

"This is the biggest win I've ever achieved, no doubt," she said. "There's no other that can even come close to this one."

From a player who has won 93 tournaments, including 18 Grand Slams, that is a profound statement revealing the terrible despair underlying yesterday's joy.

"It's just there were a lot of obstacles to climb over," she said, "and a lot of things that [made it] difficult to focus because something was always coming up.

"In the few days before the tournament, and even the beginning few days of the tournament, I didn't think I had a chance of being here at the end."

On top of her mental anguish were the various physical problems she now battles every day. Her bad back didn't cause much trouble here, but the pain in her right foot did. It was sore enough to cause her to have the foot scanned late Friday night in search of a stress fracture, kick-starting a rumor that she would have to default yesterday. But no problems other than a few bone spurs were revealed.

Then it looked like she might indeed be injured when she lost the second set at love yesterday after winning a superb first set in a tiebreaker. But, she said later, she just lost her concentration and confidence, suddenly and inexplicably.

"I didn't know how I was going to get back into the match at that point," Graf said.

But she held her serve to start the third set, breaking Seles' momentum, then broke Seles' serve in the fourth game to take a lead she never lost. It was the only break Graf recorded in the match.

The difference, in the end, was conditioning. Seles is far from fit after such a long layoff, as the spare tire around her belly attests. Graf is one of the fittest athletes in the world, male or female. Graf needed Seles to tire after losing the second set at love yesterday, and, fortunately for Graf, Seles accommodated her.

"I wasn't moving as well in the third set," Seles said, "which was to be expected."

That's not likely to happen much more, however, as Seles gets more settled on the tour and plays her way back into shape. As that happens, look for her to start beating Graf regularly, as she was doing before the stabbing.

Graf has been a champion for the ages, but at 26 she is 5 years older than Seles, and has much more wear on her tires. (She has played 880 pro matches, to 310 for Seles.) Graf is breaking down physically, and now there is this terrible mental strain over a problem that has the look of one that won't go away. Maybe she could overcome it all against the Conchita Martinezes of the world, but not the fabulous Seles, who is just getting rolling.

This year, in which Graf won three of the four Grand Slam `D events, probably was Graf's last great year. From now on, it's advantage, Seles.

So, as much as Seles has re-energized women's tennis and cut an appealing figure since her return, it was fitting and just that Graf won yesterday. For all she has done for the sport, carrying it all these years, Graf didn't deserve to suffer a defeat that would ++ have devalued every title she won while Seles was out.

And Graf certainly didn't deserve to have to play carrying all that excess baggage her father has forced on her with his alleged crimes.

Graf needed to win more than Seles yesterday.

Strange -- and sad -- but true.

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