NEW YORK -- It was like watching a gazelle outrun a buffalo, as No. 11 Irina Spirlea used her athleticism to overcome No. 2 seed Monica Seles at the U.S. Open.
The lanky Spirlea held up under the pressure of a match point in the second- set tiebreaker and three break points in the third set to claim a 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (10-8), 6-3 victory yesterday, and move into the women's semifinals.
On the men's side, No. 2 Michael Chang nearly joined Seles on the sideline, but one game from being bounced by former Open finalist Cedric Pioline, Chang rallied with a Herculean 3-hour, 41-minute effort to take a 6-3, 0-6, 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 victory.
Unseeded Magnus Larson, ranked 30th, also advanced yesterday with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 victory over Wayne Ferreira and will meet No. 13 seed Patrick Rafter, who beat No. 63-ranked Andre Agassi, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-3.
Chang will next face No. 10 seed Marcelo Rios, who won early in the day, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4, over No. 7 Sergi Bruguera. The Chang-Rios encounter will be a rematch of the Australian Open quarterfinal, which Chang won in three sets.
Young American sensation Venus Williams, the No. 66 women's player in the world, will be Spirlea's semifinal opponent following last night's 7-5, 7-4 victory over Sandrine Testud of France.
Seles' loss assures the appearance of at least one first-time Grand Slam finalist at the Open. Meanwhile, in the top half of the women's draw, No. 3 Jana Novotna will try to prevent No. 6 Lindsay Davenport from reaching the semifinals for the first time today. No. 1 Martina Hingis, already a two-time Grand Slam champion this year, and No. 10 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a former Open titlist, will meet for a semifinal spot tonight.
"Irina just played better on key points," said Seles, who lost to Spirlea for the first time in four career meetings. "She went for her shots and didn't make the errors she usually does. I was hitting short and to the middle and she mixed it up really well. And I never did find my serve."
But Seles never stopped trying, and by the time these two reached the third set, they were waging a boxing-like slugfest. They may have been punch-drunk, or wornto a frazzle, but their feet kept leaving the ground and their bodies twisted and bent almost double as each dug for every point.
In the end, it was Spirlea's well-placed first serve and her stunning ground strokes that overcame a 0-40 deficit in the second game of the third set for a hold and then pressured Seles into a forehand error on break point in the third game, to take a 2-1 lead. Seles held on for a few more games, but never had another break opportunity. And she finally was broken again on match point when the ball found the net off her backhand.
"I don't think she likes to play against the slice," said Spirlea, 23. "When you play slice, you don't give her so much rhythm that she can come and hit every ball. If you mix it up, I think it bother her more. But I think this is my best match. I mean, Monica is No. 2 in the world."
But like the buffalo, Seles, 23, may be an endangered species in a way. While she was sweating, grunting and puffing toward the end, veteran tour pros watched her lose on a locker room TV.
"It does not surprise me," said Francoise Durr, who won the French Open 30 years ago and tacked on five Wimbledon doubles and four U.S. Open doubles titles before she was through. "Seles is carrying that weight. She should have lost to [Mary] Pierce, if Pierce had a head on her shoulders."
Rosie Casals, a two-time singles finalist and four-time doubles champion here, had similar thoughts.
"What I feel has happened to Monica is that the other young players in the game have caught up to her in terms of ground strokes," Casals said. "She's one of the greatest match players, a great competitor, but she needs to get up to the net once in a while. It doesn't even have to be a good volley, but she has to take her chances."
Seles, who according to the Players Guide is 5-10 and 145 pounds, didn't get to the net yesterday. As Spirlea assessed her opponent, she understood "Monica doesn't like to run." So like a Steffi Graf clone, Spirlea applied the stroke of her idol, Graf. She tried slice backhand drop shots from the baseline, and when they went over, Seles simply watched them drop for winners.
"I think there is definitely more depth on the women's tour," said Seles, 23. "But even before, when I won the French, a couple of the Frenches or U.S. Opens, I still have had 7-6's in the third set. But this year those kinds of matches have been getting away from me. I pulled out one, two days ago here, but I couldn't today."
Asked if she thought she needed to make any changes in her game, Seles shrugged.
"That's hard to say," she said. "You probably can see that better from the outside. I'd have to think about that for a while. But I'm happy where I am. I just feel there are a couple of players on tour now who can beat any of the top ones, and we've seen that with everyone except Martina [Hingis] this year."
Men's singles, fourth round
Marcelo Rios (10) def. Sergi Bruguera (7), 7-5, 6-2, 6-4; Magnus Larsson def. Wayne Ferreira, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3; Michael Chang (2) def. Cedric Pioline, 6-3, 0-6, 5-7, 7-5, 6-1; Patrick Rafter (13) def. Andre Agassi, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-3.
Women's singles, quarterfinals
Irina Spirlea (11) def. Monica Seles (2), 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (10-8), 6-3; Venus Williams def. Sandrine Testud, 7-5, 7-5.
Pub Date: 9/03/97