Graf rates this title No. 1 U.S. OPEN


NEW YORK -- Steffi Graf stood up to everything Monica Seles could throw at her yesterday in one of the most anticipated women's finals in the history of the U.S. Open, but in the end, she could no longer suppress her tortured emotions.

On a day when she claimed "the biggest victory I've ever achieved in my career," a 7-6 (8-6), 0-6, 6-3 triumph over Seles, a victory she said "nothing else comes close to," she ran crying from her post-match interview.

Winning her fourth U.S. Open title marked the end of a two-week trial that included physical problems and emotional stress over the tax troubles Graf and her family are facing in Germany.

Her father, Peter, is in a German jail while government officials investigate suspected tax fraud, and she is not allowed to talk to him. She has not been able to see him or speak to him for more than a month.

"I think my prospects of seeing him are very slight," Graf said, when asked.

And then, she was asked if there would be any chance to talk to him about this joyous, emotional victory.

"I don't think so," she said very softly. "Doesn't seem like it."

And then she looked out at the hundreds of eyes and television cameras staring at her and crumbled.

Her face turned pale and her eyes filled with tears. She lifted her right hand to her face and began to cry, and then she got up from the podium chair and ran.

It was the saddest of endings to a brilliant day for Graf and women's tennis.

It had been a day when the co-No. 1-ranked women's players met in the Open final. And it had been a match that everyone associated with the sport had dreamed up.

There on Stadium Court was Seles, returned to the top of the game 2 1/2 years after being stabbed in the back in Hamburg, Germany, by an overzealous Graf fan, proving she is nearly back to where she was when she won eight of the nine Grand Slam finals she had played before being injured.

And there was Graf, the woman who was overcoming foot and back pain and her personal distractions, plus carrying the weight of the women's tour's credibility on her racket, whether she knew it or not.

If Seles were to win the first major she entered after a 27-month layoff, what, many wondered, would that say about the strength of the women's tour and about the validity of the titles won by Graf, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Mary Pierce in her absence?

"Certainly for a few reasons, Steffi's win sits a little better," said tour veteran Pam Shriver. "At the same time, I don't think anyone wished for Monica to lose. It's just that for Steffi, with her dad and all the personal things . . . I think, given what she accomplished here, the respect and esteem in which Steffi is held has gone to another level."

The respect with which Seles is viewed also has risen here. She, too, said she came with no expectations and blasted her way to this Open final.

And yesterday, despite being in less-than-perfect physical condition, she matched Graf point for point and step for step until getting slightly tired in the third, giving up one break to fall behind 3-1, giving Graf a lead that would hold up.

The unforced errors finally took their toll on Seles, who committed 42 to Graf's 32.

All along, Graf said she doubted her fortitude. She thought she lacked the strength to get to the final, let alone beat Seles once she got there. And even while she was playing, even after winning the first-set tiebreaker, she didn't believe she was going to win.

She was nervous. She felt her serve going away. A couple of sea gulls flew onto the top of the scoreboard above the stadium, and even they distracted her.

"I don't know how I won all the matches," she said. "I don't know if it was my will or something else in me."

When she had clinched the victory, hugged her mother, brother and coach and exchanged warm words with Seles, she jumped up and down with joy in the middle of the court when she was introduced as the champion.

It is Graf's 18th Grand Slam title, and she has won each of the majors at least four times. This year alone, she has won the French Open, Wimbledon and now the Open.

"It has been a dream," Graf said. "I mean, today, it is unreal right now. It seems unreal. Everybody has been so great and I came back into the locker room and they drenched me with beer. First I was thinking they were going to give me a beer, and then everybody just poured beer all over me. It has been incredible."

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