Revived Graf grasps final

Ex-No. 1, Hingis to play for French crown

June 04, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PARIS -- Steffi Graf came to match point. She bounced the golden-colored tennis ball six times, just as she had before each of her previous serves. But this wasn't any serve. This serve, if it was good enough, would get her into the French Open final, and you could almost feel her gather herself for a big, solid smash.

It wasn't an ace, but it was strong enough to force Monica Seles to hit a forehand return long and propel Graf into her first Grand Slam final in nearly three years.

The former world No. 1, who is the sixth seed here, defeated No. 3 Seles, 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-4.

"I'm just so happy to make this final," said Graf, 29, who last reached a Grand Slam final at the 1996 U.S. Open. "After three years, to be in a final! And I didn't really think I'd be able to do this when I got here."

Tomorrow, she will face No. 1 Martina Hingis, who advanced to the championship match with an easy, 6-3, 6-2 victory over defending French champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

Today, in the men's semifinals, No. 13 Andre Agassi and Dominik Hrbaty will square off in the first match, followed by the unseeded pair of Andrei Medvedev against Fernando Meligeni.

When the women resume play, Hingis will try for her first French Open title, and Graf will look for No. 6.

Graf has struggled through injuries the past several years, and missed an entire eight months after knee surgery in June 1997.

"It's great to see Steffi back in a final, holding up physically through this tournament against Lindsay Davenport and myself, and able to play to her form," said a gracious Seles, who was the French runner-up last year and is no stranger to comebacks. "I think it's huge that she's been able to come back. Absolutely huge. And she has a chance to win it. I think, among the players, we didn't ever count her out, because all champions, like Steffi and Martina, they'll fight and work the hardest."

Graf appeared to be in trouble in the early going yesterday. Seles took the lead and was up 3-0 before Graf found her game and rallied to force a first-set tiebreaker. And even then, Seles was still in control, winning the set relatively easily as she pounded Graf's backhand, 7-2.

But from the start of the second set, Graf's backhand got stronger and stronger, and there wasn't much to chose between these two former No. 1s. Seles said: "It was only one or two big points. Those times, Steffi just played better and I played way too defensively and I think that's why she came out the winner."

The fans surrounding Court Central raised their voices for both players, but it was Graf who obviously held the hearts of the majority.

"Come on, Steffi!" screamed one young voice. "You just have to win!"

For all her conservative control, it was obvious throughout the match -- as Graf fought not only Seles, but also the wind and the resulting swirling red-clay dust storms -- that she valued every point, every game.

Both women have talked often of their respect for one another, and neither made any gaudy displays. But when Graf's forehand would just catch the line for a winner or her serve would be big enough to earn a game point, she would clench her fists at her side and her whole being would seem to bounce.

For her part, Seles was energized. She exhaled with determination and her body jack-knifed in her efforts to get every ounce of power into each shot.

"But I never felt really comfortable with my forehand," she said. "I certainly didn't hit many forehand winners down the line. The wind, the conditions, they were the worst I've ever played in here, I think. There wasn't any clay left on the court by the third set."

A huge storm that rolled through early in the afternoon delayed the Hingis/Sanchez-Vicario match for nearly 45 minutes. They, however, were able to get their 1-hour, 3-minute match in before the cold wind blew up the clay and, at times, made Court Central look as though it were in the middle of a sandstorm.

But Graf said it wasn't the wind or the flying debris that impeded Seles' forehand.

"When I play the slice well, like today, it's very flat, it doesn't stay up," Graf said. "There's almost no chance for her to play down the line with a two-handed shot. She can only play basically back to my backhand."

It's a complete turnaround for Graf. She missed those eight months in rehab before returning to the WTA Tour in February 1998.

Since then, she has continued to fight injuries, rallying from ankle and hamstring problems and minor wrist surgery.

This season, she has also had dark moments.

"I look at Key Biscayne," she said, referring to the Lipton Championships in late March. "I played a terrible match against Venus [Williams]. I mean, there were a lot of moments where I was doubting what I was doing sometimes out there because I didn't really play up to my potential."

Then, even after not playing much, her back acted up in Berlin last month, "and I played pretty disastrous tennis.

"Honestly, I came here just to get a few matches before Wimbledon, not really thinking that I'd be doing that well."

And now she's in the final.

"It's a very big step," she said, a warm smile lighting her face. "Not many of you or even me did think that I'd be [here] on Saturday."

Today's featured matches

Men's singles semifinals

Fernando Meligeni, Brazil, vs. Andrei Medvedev, Ukraine

Dominik Hrbaty, Slovakia, vs. Andre Agassi (13), Las Vegas

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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