KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Monica Seles, the defending champion of the Lipton International Players Championships, used her first tournament since she seized Steffi Graf's No. 1 ranking two weeks ago to prove that she deserves her label as the best match player of the moment in women's tennis.
In the sizzling early-afternoon sun yesterday, Seles, 17, rebounded from a 0-4, 0-40 second-set deficit against Gabriela Sabatini, who bills herself as the best fighter in the women's game, to successfully defend that Lipton title with a 6-3, 7-5 victory.
"She's a tough player; she deserves to be No. 1," said Sabatini, 20, who took the year's best record, 19-1, into the final and came out of it in tears.
This was the same pair that clashed in a historic five-set marathon, the first in women's tennis since 1901, last November in the final of the Virginia Slims Championships, where Seles reversed a two-sets-to-one deficit to win a 3-hour-37-minute test.
"But I never came back in professional tennis before from love-4, love-40 down in a professional match," Seles said.
This final was a briefer but more heated confrontation, where Seles, playing to avoid a third set, pounded her way through five match points before a Sabatini backhand lofted long.
Leading 5-4, Sabatini failed to capitalize on six set points instead letting Seles tie the set at 5. Then, serving with a 6-5 lead, Seles squandered four match points.
The match ended after 107 minutes.
"I definitely didn't want to go to a third set," Seles said, "I didn't feel capable of it. It was hot out there; the air just stopped, it didn't move, and I was gasping."
The victory improved Seles' 1991 record to 17-1, including the Australian Open championship; her only loss came three weeks ago in the final at Palm Springs, where Martina Navratilova TTC prevented Seles from seizing the world's top ranking on the spot.
"It's great being No. 1," said Seles, who was so besieged with attention and news media requests last week that she could hardly find time to practice properly, "but I don't think it should take over my practice and my life. Everybody's gunning for me, they don't want to be No. 2 or 3, but if I'm better, I'll be the best, and if not, I don't deserve to be."
"I just couldn't make it today, I don't know," said Sabatini, who converted just three of 14 break points and committed 31 unforced errors to Seles's 18. "She didn't give me many chances and I just felt like I couldn't win the big points."
While the women's tournament came down to a battle of the No. 2 and 3 seeds, the men's draw has produced plenty of upsets and unexpected finalists. Unseeded David Wheaton and No. 13 Jim Courier, former high school classmates and products of the same tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., will meet for the title today.