Graf, Seles meet in final today


NEW YORK -- Thirteen days ago, No. 1 Steffi Graf arrived at the U.S. Open more unsure of herself than she had ever been.

"I did not think then that I would make it the finals," she said yesterday. "I could go through a whole list of why I didn't think I'd get there, but, basically, I just didn't think I could do it."

But yesterday, she beat No. 9 seed Gabriela Sabatini, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), to arrive at today's championship match against No. 2 seed Monica Seles, who shares the world No. 1 ranking with Graf.

Seles, playing in her first Grand Slam tournament in 2 1/2 years, blew away No. 4 seed Conchita Martinez, 6-2, 6-2, to set up the most anticipated match in women's tennis since perhaps before Seles was stabbed in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993.

Seles has left everyone she has faced in awe.

"I mean, you have to be impressed," Martinez said. "I never stopped playing for two years, but I know coming back, if I haven't played a tournament for even a month or two, it takes me some time to get my confidence back -- so I think she is very tough mentally and . . . and that she is playing unbelievable."

But when Seles walks onto the court today, she will be facing a woman who has proven her toughness repeatedly.

As always, it seems, there are the questions about Graf's back and now her left foot, a bone irritation that began this week. And now there are her family's tax problems in Germany.

Graf's father is in a German prison while authorities there finish their investigation of suspected tax fraud. While Peter Graf is behind bars, Steffi is not allowed any contact with him. Added to her worry is that she, too, could be culpable.

"These last few weeks have taken so much out of me," Graf said after her victory. "So what I have already achieved means so much. I have been able to focus on the court.

"So when I go on the court against Monica, whether I win or lose, it will have been a great tournament for me. But I know everyone else has been looking forward to this match, and I think, obviously, it is going to be very exciting."

The last time they met was the Australian Open in 1993, Seles won, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Coming into this match, Graf is 38-1. Seles is 11-0 since returning to tennis last month.

"It is all going to come down to playing some great tennis," said Seles. "Steffi and I are a lot alike. We are both perfectionists. . . . We respect tremendously each other, and no matter what the outcome here, that will not change.

"But I am sure there will be some feelings and nervousness against Steffi because it is my first Grand Slam final in a long time, and probably because of Hamburg. But I think for women's tennis it is great that you get two of the best players in the finals. I just think it is going to be one of the best matches of the year."

It is ironic that in this Grand Slam tournament that marks Seles' return after being stabbed by a man who wanted to see Graf return to being No. 1, that it is Graf, not Seles, who has become the more sympathetic figure.

The biggest reason is that Graf seems vulnerable, and Seles has overwhelmed every opponent.

Players taking on Graf have thought they had a chance. Yesterday, Sabatini said she lost not because Graf was the more dominant player but because she had let herself down.

"It is very disappointing," said Sabatini, "because I had many opportunities."

Seles, on the other hand, simply chewed up Martinez.

"I didn't have a chance," said the No. 3 player in the world. "Monica is hitting the ball really, really good."

Women's singles semifinals -- Steffi Graf (1), Germany, def. Gabriela Sabatini (9), Argentina, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5). Monica Seles (2), Sarasota, Fla., def. Conchita Martinez (2), Spain, 6-2, 6-2.

Men's doubles championship -- Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, Australia (2), def. Alex O'Brien, Amarillo, Texas, and Sandon Stolle, Australia (15), 6-3, 6-3.

Today's feature matches -- Women's singles championship: Steffi Graf (1), Germany, vs. Monica Seles (2), Sarasota, Fla. Men's singles semifinals: Jim Courier (14), Miami, vs. Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, Fla. Andre Agassi (1), Las Vegas, vs. Boris Becker (4), Germany.

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