No. 1? It's no one but Graf Champ dominates Seles on her way to fifth Open title

September 09, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Steffi Graf stood in the downpour that swamped the Stadium Court at the U.S. Open and smiled radiantly through the raindrops.

She and Monica Seles have been the co-ranked No. 1 women's tennis players in the world since Seles' return to tennis a year ago, but yesterday, in the women's Open final, Graf left no doubt who the No. 1 player is, even if the co-ranking goes on for another five months.

Graf simply washed away Seles, 7-5, 6-4.

"Steffi is clearly No. 1," Seles said. "I think everybody can see that. Today, she was just clearly -- she served some awesome serves, and I wasn't doing that -- and Steffi played the key points much better, and I couldn't hold on."

This is Graf's fifth U.S. Open victory and her second in a row here. But her other numbers dwarf those.

This is her third Grand Slam title of the year, her sixth straight title in Grand Slams that she has played -- a feat not accomplished since Martina Navratilova did so in 1983-1984 -- and her 21st career Grand Slam title.

"Every Grand Slam title is different," said the champion. "Every single one has a different emotion and different tennis. It is so difficult to compare them.

"Last year, this tournament was very, very difficult for me, and this one was no easier. But this one there is a joy of winning.

"I was really struggling just to stay focused in this tournament, and to concentrate and be sitting here in this position is incredible."

A year ago, her father was in jail under investigation for tax evasion. Her pain showed after last year's Open victory over Seles. On a day that should have brought joy, she fled the post-match interview in tears after being asked whether she would be talking to her father.

Her father is now on trial on tax-evasion charges in Germany, and when she was asked earlier this week about the distraction of that, she declined to discuss the matter.

Yesterday, no one asked. The joy of winning came from the way she played.

After being troubled by poor starts and unusual concentration lapses throughout the tournament, Graf got her game and herself together for this final. She simply played tremendous, dominating tennis.

No one could call what they saw miraculous, for Graf seemingly has made a career out of playing through distractions and injuries with uncanny success.

But even Graf was taken aback by her ability to step up her game once more when she needed to.

"I wish I would know, too, before the match," she said.

"I mean, it is, to me, still a big question, how I am able to play that well when I need to. I felt like I had an upset stomach before this match and I was -- like I was really nervous, and then I went out on the court.

"I loosened up so much more and felt so much more relaxed because suddenly I had a real good positive attitude. I don't know how or why it came."

It could have come from getting in 71 percent of her first serves with speeds ranging from 95 mph to 105 mph. It could have come from breaking Seles in the third game of the first set and in the first game of the second.

It could have come from looking across the net and seeing a weary Seles rolling her eyes skyward after a 101 mph ace by Graf for a 2-0 lead in the second set. From the beginning, Seles was never really in the match. She seemed almost lifeless: no zest in her stride, no pace to her game and no grunting to attest to her intensity until too late in the second set.

The only relief for her seemed to come from the sidelines, where play was disrupted twice -- once by fans signing "Happy Birthday To You" to Tom Gullikson on the Grandstand court, and again when one male voice in the pro-Seles crowd proposed marriage.

"I think Steffi's record speaks for itself," Seles said.

"She's a great player. She is winning constantly Grand Slam tournaments. When you have that combination, it is tough to play against anybody like that."

Neither Seles nor the clouds turning day into night could cool down Graf. As she stood there, her clenched fists lifted in victory, she didn't even notice the rain beginning to fall.

"I didn't expect to be able to show that kind of tennis today," she said.

"This is why I play tennis. There is nothing else that can give you the feelings I take away from here today."

Grand Graf

Since losing to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the 1994 U.S. Open final, Steffi Graf has won 42 straight Grand Slam matches:

1995

Australian Open: Did not play.

French Open: 7 (5 in straight sets)

Wimbledon: 7 (5 in straight sets)

1% U.S. Open: 7 (4 in straight sets)

1996

Australian Open: Did not play.

French Open: 7 (6 in straight sets)

Wimbledon: 7 (6 in straight sets)

1% U.S. Open: 7 (7 in straight sets)

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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