PARIS, JUNE 8 -- Steffi Graf carries her usual statistics and reputation into the French Open final Saturday against Monica Seles. But Seles, unlike Graf, is the hottest player in tennis.
Graf is the winner of eight of her last nine Grand Slam events, in her 13th consecutive major final and owner of a staggering 265-8 record since January 1987. Yet at the same time Graf has passed from prodigy into adulthood, new teenagers have encroached, led by Seles, 16. When they meet at Stade Roland Garros Graf will be returning to the site where her smothering dominance was first undermined a year ago.
She was extended to three sets by Seles in an embattled semifinal, then upset by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, then 17, in the final. When Graf was stunned by Seles, 6-3, 6-4, in the German Open final three weeks ago, her veneer of invincibility suffered another large dent.
"Suddenly, coming into the French I was more of a favorite than Steffi or anybody else," said Seles, who has a 31-match, five-tournament winning streak.
There have been other glimpses of inconsistency that make Graf, for once, a question. She played poorly in capturing the Australian Open in January. She was absent from the tour for two months this spring after breaking her right thumb in a freak cross-country skiing accident. She developed an inexplicable allergy to Paris air. Discussion in the locker room here has been about her health.
So the issue is whether another rising adolescent can enliven the women's game, or if Graf again will assert her chokehold as she has so often. A victory would give her half of a second Grand Slam. It also would quiet all the talk about her health and state of mind.
"For sure I am playing better," she said. "I feel pretty good. I won each match pretty easily and I haven't had too much trouble. . . . Mentally, I am okay."
Graf acknowledges that her play early this season was uninspired. It may be that some deterioration was inevitable. Her consistency has been so iron-like that the slightest waver is blown out of proportion. After she defeated Jana Novotna in the semifinals, 6-1, 6-2, she called a single loss of serve an uncharacteristic lack of concentration. Graf has won all of her matches here in straight sets, and lost no more than five games in any.
"During the last 10 days of the tournament, everyone was saying that Steffi was not playing well, that she was sick," Novotna said. "She just keeps proving that she is the number one player in the world. She knows how to handle the bad weather, the pressure and everything else."
Seles is one of the few players who has proven she can deal with Graf's heavy baseline strokes. In fact, the left-hander who dispatched Jennifer Capriati, 6-2, 6-2, in the semifinals may sometimes hit even harder than Graf with her two-fisted strokes from both sides. Together they represent the consummate examples of the power-baselining new breed, and Capriati's assessment of Seles applies to both.
"She hits it deep and when she has it, she goes for it," Capriati said.
That her opponents have found answers to Graf's power game also may have been inevitable. As Graf shows signs of mortality, the fear factor that was so helpful in her Grand Slam year of 1988 has abated. Sanchez Vicario said watching Seles come so close in last year's semifinal helped her in the final; Seles said watching Sanchez Vicario's miracle victory in the final gave her ideas and confidence in the German final.
"Last year maybe her opponents were more scared when they confronted her," Seles said. "Now they are hitting the ball a lot harder and going more for their shots since they realize they have nothing to lose."
If Graf is winning less easily, she still is winning regularly. She was on a 66-match streak when Seles stopped her three weeks ago; it is the second longest streak in the history of women's tennis to Martina Navratilova's 74 straight.
One byproduct of Graf's loss to Seles is that some of the burden of pressure has slid from her shoulders. Seles' streak currently is the longest in tennis, and she is grappling with new expectations as the No. 3 player in the world. Graf has seemed more at ease in this Grand Slam event than in the previous two or three, and some of her most ruthless tennis has come in the wake of an upset.
Seles' five consecutive finals victories include a straight-set defeat of Navratilova in the Italian Open that the latter compared to "being run over by a truck." But if Seles is a co-favorite here, she is a worn out one who struggled through some difficult matches. She was so tired after recovering from a one-set deficit against Manuela Maleeva in the quarterfinals that she took the next day off and spent it in a whirlpool. Her recent record does not make her unduly confident, particularly since she is in her first Grand Slam final.
"It's going to be a totally new match with totally new conditions," Seles said. "I'm not even going to think about the fact that I beat her three weeks ago. She's going to have to play very well to beat me, because I'm going to run for every ball and give everything I have. But the same goes for me, I'm going to have to play well to beat her."