NEW YORK -- When Steffi Graf clinched her fist and pounded it against her hip after fighting off four set points in the 10th game of her semifinal match yesterday, it was a sure sign that teen-age sensation Martina Hingis was on her way out of the U.S. Open.
And Graf, with her 7-5, 6-3 victory, was on her way into today's women's final and a rematch with Monica Seles.
"Even though the way I have started my six matches here so far is not too well, the way I always come back, it is pretty amazing," said Graf, the No. 1 seed. "Being down 5-4, 40-love in this match, that was even more difficult than the others because of the way she was playing. . . . But I saw the momentum swing."
It took two days to get this semifinal match over, becauserain washed out Friday's late afternoon and evening matches. By the time Graf had finished yesterday, Seles already had beaten No. 4 seed Conchita Martinez on Friday to get a head start on preparing for today's final.
This is the match everyone hoped for coming in, though neither Graf nor Seles seemed at all sure that they could make it here.
Graf is distracted by her father's trial on tax evasion charges, and Seles has been bothered all season by a muscle tear near her rotator cuff.
"It's difficult to say how this match will go," said Graf. "I haven't seen her play a lot, but obviously, with her shoulder, if she wouldn't serve as hard, it will probably be an advantage to me. So I just have to see how it is going to go."
Graf has won her past five Grand Slam tournaments and has a 41-match winning streak going into the final. The four-time Open champion is looking to be a back-to-back winner here for the first time since 1988 and 1989.
zTC Seles won the Australian Open this year, but had not reached another Grand Slam final until this tournament. She won back-to-back here in 1991 and 1992.
Graf holds a 7-4 career edge against Seles, including last year here, where Seles was playing in her first Grand Slam final against Graf since returning to the tour after a 2 1/2 -year absence.
This time, most of Seles' post-stabbing trauma and excitement over her return has dissipated. But Graf said she cannot afford to start against Seles the way she has been starting.
"I think I am really going to have to put my mind on the court," Graf said.
Yesterday, it was Hingis who had her mind on the court early.
"Martina was really playing great out there," Graf said. "She didn't give me many easy points. I really had to play them. I worked her around the court a lot, and, obviously, whenever I was trying to be aggressive, I was making a lot of mistakes. But on the other hand, she didn't really give me anything, and she made some incredible shots down the lines.
"I was really amazed that she was able to keep that high intensity for almost the whole match."
Hingis, 15, wowed fans with back-to-back victories over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Jana Novotna to make it into the semifinals. Seeded 16th, she started yesterday as if she fully intended to win.
The only things to get in Hingis' way were Graf and her own temper. Graf tired her out, and Hingis' irritation at herself flared aftermissing what would have been easy shots if she could have gotten her breath. The combination cost her four games, the same way it had cost her four games in an angry fit against Sanchez Vicario in the fourth round.
Against Sanchez Vicario, she was able to rally for a three-set victory. Yesterday, there was no reprieve.
"It was a Graf-Seles final last year, and I tried to change it," Hingis said. "But it doesn't work. I had so many set points. You are a little upset when you don't get any of them.
"I had chances, but Steffi, she made me move a lot. She made me so tired, I had nothing left. But I made it to the semifinals, and I am happy. Maybe next year I will be stronger, and I can play even better."
Until then, it will be up to Graf and Seles, who share the No. 1 world ranking, to determine another Open championship.
U.S. Open finals
Women: Steffi Graf (1) vs. Monica Seles (2)
When: Today, 2 p.m. (approx.)
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Head-to-head: Graf leads, 7-4
Last meeting: 1995 U.S. Open final: Graf, 7-6 (8-6), 0-6, 6-3
Men: Pete Sampras (1) vs. Michael Chang (2)
When: Today, 4 p.m. (approx.)
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Head-to-head: Sampras leads, 10-7
Last meeting: 1996 Hong Kong final: Sampras, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4
Pub Date: 9/08/96