NEW YORK -- The questions have been asked for months and will follow Steffi Graf until Monica Seles returns to women's tennis. They might even haunt Graf, if the former No. 1 player doesn't recover from the tragic injury that has sidetracked her career and their growing rivalry.
Would Graf have won three straight major championships, including this year's U.S. Open, if Seles had not been stabbed on a court in Hamburg, Germany, in April and forced to miss the past five months? Would Graf have won even one? Will there be an invisible asterisk attached to Graf's accomplishments this year?
Graf's 35-match winning streak, and her victories at the French Open, Wimbledon and here in yesterday's women's final have coincided with Seles being sidelined. The specter of Seles' absence hung over the National Tennis Center before, during and after Graf's anticlimactic 6-3, 6-3 victory over 12th seed Helena Sukova of the Czech Republic.
Even Graf seemed to acknowledge it -- something she was criticized for not doing at either Roland Garros or the All England Club -- after she dismantled Sukova in 65 minutes at Louis Armstrong Stadium. In accepting the silver urn and the $535,000 check she received for winning her third Open title, Graf seemed to be reaching out to Seles.
"I just want to say that there's one player who hasn't been around the last few Grand Slams, and that's Monica," Graf told the crowd. "I just hope she'll be soon back."
Not only does women's tennis need Seles, but apparently so does Graf. While duplicating what Seles did in each of the past two years by winning three of the four Grand Slam events in 1993, the top-seeded Graf certainly showed that she is back to the level she was at in 1988. That was when Graf became only the third women's player to win all four majors in the same year.
In winning her first Open title in five years and her 14th Grand Slam title, Graf had little competition. After extending her career record to 18-0 against Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere in the semifinals Friday, Graf continued her dominance over Sukova yesterday. It was the 24-year-old German's 20th straight victory over Sukova, who won the first match they played in 1983.
"I think it is a great achievement to have been able to win three Grand Slams and be in the final of the other one," said Graf, whose only loss at a Grand Slam tournament this year came to Seles in the final of the Australian Open." Asked whether she needed Seles back in order to keep improving, Graf said: "After winning these six tournaments in a row, I am not quitting or not letting go to try and improve. But sure it helps if you have a player who pushes you more. Obviously you are trying harder and you work harder. But I am not necessarily a person who needs it too much because I like to push myself."
Sukova, the lowest seed to play in the women's final at the Open since unseeded Pam Shriver of Lutherville, Md., lost to Chris Evert 15 years ago, hardly pushed Graf at all. Distracted by early line calls that she thought went against her and discouraged by her inability to win a few key points, Sukova's second Open final went much the way as her first appearance seven years ago, when she lost to Martina Navratilova, 6-3, 6-2.
"I am very disappointed, because I thought I had a good shot at this one," said Sukova, 28. "She played very well. I think the difference also was that at the beginning when the umpire made two mistakes in two games. It makes a difference. If I would have had those games, it could have been different. I just felt the lady was afraid to overrule the balls, and I felt it is tough for the U.S. Open finals if you have an inexperienced umpire."
Graf said: "The only call I would criticize would have been the serve because I myself thought it was out, but then again the next game she served, there was a serve that I felt was out. That always happens. But I don't know if she thinks there were so many bad calls. I didn't think so."
The difference yesterday wasn't in the line calls that weren't made, but in the way Sukova continually came in behind weak second serves and floating shots from the baseline, only to be passed again and again at the net by Graf. Sukova had her chances -- the last time after winning the first two points on Graf's serves at 4-3 in the second set -- but she couldn't get over the hump.
Graf was unrelenting. While she still has the most potent forehand in the game and has developed a dangerous backhand passing shot as well, what separates Graf (and Seles, when she is healthy) from the rest of the top women's players is their mental toughness. Maleeva-Fragniere talked about it after she won the first set against Graf on Friday night, only to win two games the rest of the match.
"I think it is really a big part of it," Graf said yesterday. "That is what I've been saying. I feel more confident now. That is why I feel even when I am not playing my best tennis, I still feel there is a way back into it, and that is being confident about yourself."
But certainly part of that confidence also comes in knowing that a match with Seles is not looming soon, or that the woman who has won seven of the past eight Grand Slam events that she played isn't on the other side of the net. Graf, who became No. 1 again after winning the French Open, seems to attach her personal asterisk to this three-quarter Slam.
And she appears to be getting tired of answering questions about Seles. When somebody asked whether she "missed Monica", Graf grimaced. "I have been saying that constantly, and nothing has changed," she said.
It is a question that won't go away, at least until Seles comes back.