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Graf Defeats Seles for U.S. Open Title

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 9, 1996; Page C1

NEW YORK, Sept. 8 — Steffi Graf was warming up on Stadium Court, a few hours before she was to play in the 1996 U.S. Open women’s singles final, when she first felt her stomach flutter, and her shoulders tense, and her heart beat a little faster. Graf doesn’t get nervous like that very often. She doesn’t have reason to.

Today, she did. For Graf, there is something special — and especially unnerving — about playing against Monica Seles in a Grand Slam final. Graf, the world’s best women’s tennis player, considers Seles her greatest professional challenge. And she considers her own ability to meet challenges, no matter the circumstance, her greatest gift.

With a rainstorm looming and her heart pounding, Graf used that gift to produce some of her most brilliant tennis today, defeating Seles, 7-5, 6-4, in a match she dominated from beginning to end.

In repeating as men’s champion, Pete Sampras also was overpowering, beating second-seeded Michael Chang, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3). It was Sampras’s first Grand Slam tournament crown this year and eighth of his career.

Her victory gave Graf a 21st Grand Slam title — three shy of Margaret Smith Court’s singles record — and her second straight win over Seles, whom she beat in the Open last year.

For myriad reasons — starting with the stabbing that kept Seles away from tennis for 2˝ years — those two meetings have been the only ones between Seles and Graf in four years.

"This is very necessary for the game and very necessary for us," said Graf, who did not drop a set en route to a fifth Open title. "I think whenever we play, we seem to really play the best."

Storm clouds were edging closer and closer to the court as Graf walked out to serve the final game, and inside the stadium the air seemed to swell with the promise of rain. Graf paid no attention. She noticed it had grown darker — how could she not, with the ball growing more and more difficult to see? — and she felt the wind, but she worried nothing about finishing her work before the rain fell.

Graf’s first serve was a 98 mph blast, her 10th ace. Seles hit deep on the next two points, and then she lined up to return with triple match point looming nearly as large as the storm.

"I was just trying to stay focused at that point," Seles said. "That is all I was worried about, because I had no control over the rain or anything else."

Seles saved the first match point with a forehand down the line that forced a Graf error. On the next point, Graf came to the net for a forehand volley that nicked the net cord, but was a clear winner from the moment it left her racket. A few minutes later, the rain poured down on Stadium Court and Graf stood there, apparently oblivious to the weather and amazed, once again, by her own ability to triumph when it matters most.

"It is, to me, still a big question how I am able to play that well when I need to," Graf said. "It is something, you know, I wish I would know because I felt so nervous before the match and I felt like I had an upset stomach and I was ... I was really nervous."

Today’s nervousness had little to do with the injury problems that have hampered Graf these past few years, or the anguish she feels over her father, Peter Graf, who is on trial in Germany on charges of tax evasion. It had to do with Seles. If there is anyone in the world who can make Graf doubt her dominance of women’s tennis, it is Seles, who was winning Grand Slam after Grand Slam before she was viciously stabbed on a tennis court in Hamburg in 1993.

Seles’ long absence from tennis in the aftermath of that incident cast something of a cloud over all Graf’s successes, and even Graf’s victory here last September — which came a mere six weeks after Seles returned — did not change that.

Today, though, Graf left no doubt who is the better player, winning her third straight Grand Slam event. She served brilliantly — one ace was recorded at 105 mph — and she broke Seles early in each set. Seles (who has been playing this tournament with a tear in her left shoulder) struggled with her serve, struggled to return Graf’s serves, and struggled with her forehand, which produced many of her 31 unforced errors.

"She just played, I think, on every level a little bit better today than I did," Seles said. "Steffi clearly is number one. Wow, you can see that."

Friday, in her semifinal with Conchita Martinez, Seles’ serves hovered in the 70s and low 80s, and Seles knew those speeds would not be good enough against Graf.

With those thoughts in the back of her head, Seles did something she knew she shouldn’t in the first few games today — she surreptitiously checked the numbers on the radar scoreboard in the corner of the court each time Graf served. When Seles started seeing 95 and better, she made a decision: She would go for the big serve, too, no matter how much it might make her sore shoulder ache.

"She clearly was — wow! — she served some awesome serves today," Seles said. "I wasn’t doing that. I served some great ones, but then I served also some really weak ones."

Seles has been playing with her sore shoulder since the end of the Australian Open, which she won, and there have been times when she has questioned her decision. In the end, though, she kept playing for one reason — after being out so long, Seles wanted to see how she stacked up against the best. Graf understands.

"We are out there to be challenged and why I train hard is because I want to play my best against the other best," said Graf, who was clearly referring to Seles. "In a way, you definitely need it a lot."

Notes: Second-seeded Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva rallied to win the women’s doubles title, defeating No. 1 Jana Novotna and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4. It was the 12th Grand Slam doubles title for Fernandez and Zvereva.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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