Graf rallies past Novotna to set up final with Hingis Defending champ secures year-end No. 1 ranking

November 24, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- If someone had a video recorder, it would save a lot of time. Tape one of Steffi Graf's matches and push the continuous-play button.

Graf's matches are marvelous exhibitions of consistency. Predictably she falls behind, overcomes any and all obstacles and then speeds to the finish with rally after rally to rescue an emotional victory.

Then she proceeds to the post-match interview and looks truly mystified.

"No," she says. "I don't know either how I can continue to pull some of these matches out. I wish I did."

Yesterday, in the first of two semifinals at the season-ending Chase Championships at Madison Square Garden, the tape was rolling.

After falling behind No. 5 seed Jana Novotna, who was trying everything she knew to win, Graf rallied for another pulsing, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory to set up today's five-set final with 16-year-old sensation Martina Hingis.

But then the tape broke.

"I just keep on doing it," Graf said. "Obviously, it is the focus that I've got out there. Even if I'm not 100 percent prepared for the tournaments, I still got the belief in me that I still can do it. I just basically don't give up."

So today, even before her match with Hingis, the No. 7 seed who beat Iva Majoli, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, in their semifinal, Graf has earned the No. 1 year-end ranking on the Corel WTA tour.

"I don't think there is anyone [who has a greater ability to dig down when they need to]," Novotna said. "I haven't played against players like Billie Jean [King] or Martina [Navratilova], and that generation. But in my generation I don't really think there is anybody except Steffi who can play [so well] under no matter what circumstances.

"It seems the worse she is on the court or the worse the score is, the better she can get. And that is just what she proved in the quarters against Lindsay Davenport, when she was down 5-2. And she did that against me again today.

"Well, I guess that's what champions are all about."

Graf will get the chance to prove herself a champion again today in the only five-set final in women's tennis. In Hingis, she faces an opponent who is growing in confidence with every match.

"I feel much stronger now and I don't think five sets are a big problem," said Hingis, who watched part of the Graf-Novotna match from courtside. "Steffi is very good physically, but she didn't play so many matches and tournaments the last couple of weeks. She had to retire in Philly [last week]. And, also, she had a tough match today against Jana. So I hope I'm going to have some chances. I think I'm going to have some."

By the time Graf and Novotna split the first two sets yesterday, Graf had figured out that Novotna could not handle her low backhand slices, so she played it safe with her serve and alternately sliced and powered her shots to Novotna's backhand.

None of that surprised Novotna, who missed the opportunity to join Navratilova as the only other Czech woman in tennis history to reach No. 2 in the world.

"I really thought it was a spectacular match and that I had given everything I had there," said Novotna, whose 14-match win streak ended. "And, I told you, Steffi is my destiny."

In the very first tournament Novotna played outside of the Czech Republic, when she was 14, her first opponent was Graf.

"I knew nobody except for one player, Steffi Graf," Novotna said. "I had her in the first round and I lost to her in three sets. She's the one who always stops me, even when I'm playing my best tennis. She's always there. I just have to wait until Steffi is retired and then I can go ahead and win my Grand Slam and this championship."

Roll that tape.

NOTES: In the doubles final, No. 3 seeds Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez upset top seeds Novotna and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-3, 6-2. The winners split a $200,000 prize, and the losers will share $100,000. After the match, both teams announced the end of their partnerships.

Novotna, Sanchez Vicario and Davenport begin vacations today, and Fernandez will travel to Baltimore for Tuesday's Signet Bank Tennis Challenge, in which she is scheduled to play Monica Seles.

Chase final

Site: Madison Square Garden, New York

Time: 2:45 p.m.

TV: Ch. 2

Outlook: Steffi Graf, the defending champion, will try to win her fifth title in 12 years in this season-ending event. Her opponent will be No. 7 seed and first-time finalist Martina Hingis.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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