NEW YORK, SEPT. 7 -- Steffi Graf had a statement to make in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Get off her back. Leave her alone. Stop bugging her with these little clay-courters like Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and tabloid horrors, and predictions of her demise. Graf reached the final today with a victory over Sanchez Vicario that couldn't have been more emphatic. Gabriela Sabatini became her opponent only after three exhausting sets and 2 hours 43 minutes with Mary Joe Fernandez.
It has been said that top-ranked Graf, 21, of West Germany is not what she once was, plagued by health problems, hounded by the European press and upset-prone. In Sanchez Vicario she met one of her upsetters, the 1989 French Open champion, a creative 18-year-old seeded and ranked No. 6. Here are the facts: Graf breezed in just 54 minutes, 6-1, 6-2, and just try to stop her from winning her third straight U.S. Open title.
"I couldn't play much better," she said.
Graf's freshness and efficiency put Sabatini and Fernandez to shame. The 20-year-old Argentine clay-courter seeded No. 5 defeated the 19-year-old Miami baseliner seeded No. 8, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3, in a tiresome match marked by long topspin rallies and an inability to hold serve, with 13 breaks. But Sabatini proved more stubborn, recovering from deficits of 1-4 in the first set and 0-3 to extend the second; she never trailed in the third.
She mixed it up, exchanging her looping strokes for slices and rushing the net for diving volleys as she attempted to shorten the match. She finally did so, using just one service break to take the final set. She held serve for the match convincingly. She made a diving backhand volley that left her rolling on the ground, but in possession of double-match point as Fernandez stood flat-footed. Fernandez gave up on the next point with a weary forehand wide.
"That was the biggest factor, that I fought very much," Sabatini said. "I was down many times, but I kept fighting."
The effort may have assured Graf of a title, for she will be rested for Saturday's final while Sabatini is likely to be tired. Graf also has an 18-3 record against Sabatini. Sabatini has a habit of at least making their matches close: She has lost their last two Open meetings in three sets, defeated in the 1988 final by 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, and in the semifinals last year, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. But Graf is not likely to let what would be her 10th grand slam title in three years elude her now.
Graf has shown new vulnerabilities this season, losing three straight tournaments, including the French to Monica Seles, 16, and a Wimbledon semifinal to veteran Zina Garrison. Who wouldn't, chased by all these kids with scorching groundstrokes and tormented by a painful sinus condition and what she called tabloid persecution of her family? To win the Open after all of that would perhaps be as much of a personal achievement for Graf as her 1988 Grand Slam.
"It would be something major for me," she said. "Playing that well and getting to final is a big step for me. It means a lot to me. Nothing has meant that much to me for a long, long time."
If Graf's recovery is not complete, it is close to it. She has weathered this season's controversies with an iron if joyless will. Her forehand, the devastating stroke that had all but disappeared this summer, has returned with a vengeance, and so has her stern demeanor and her health. She belted Sanchez Vicario around the court like a rag doll for 12 winners, and in an effort to display her old haste she charged the net an uncharacteristic 23 times, winning 20 of those points.
"For a change, I am perfect," she said. Sanchez Vicario was only able to hold her serve three times in seven service games. That was partly a result of her intimidation in the face of Graf's forehand. "If you don't get your first serve in, you know she's going to kill you," she said.
"All over I felt good," Graf said. "I put a lot of pace on the balls and I went for the shots. I simply think I played too fast for her."
Sabatini and Fernandez looked sluggish by comparison. Their rackets seemed to weigh several pounds in their hands, and they swayed wearily at the baseline over each serve. Their presence in the semis was as much as result of a spate of upsets as their own play, No. 2 Martina Navratilova, Seles (No. 3) and Garrison (No. 4) all gone by the quarterfinals.
Or it may have been the closeness of their rivalry, with a 5-5 record against each other coming in. Each had something to prove, Sabatini in her third straight Open semifinal but called a journeywoman despite her young age because of her inability to break through in a major championship.
Fernandez won't soon forget how she lost the first set. There were five breaks of serve, and eight of the 12 games went to multiple deuces. After 45 minutes they had played just seven games.
The fifth game was a six-deuce, four-break point affair before Sabatini dropped her serve again, with a backhand deep and then a sloppy backhand volley that sat up for Fernandez' forehand pass for her 4-1 lead.
She double-faulted to lose her serve in the next game. She let Sabatini even it at 4 when she dropped serve again as she could not put away two overheads, and slapped a forehand in the net. Sabatini got the decisive break in the 12th, when Fernandez scooped a backhand half-volley at the net and Sabatini grabbed it with a running angled forehand volley to open court.
"I started coming to the net," Sabatini said. "She missed some passing shots, I volleyed well, and that's how the match changed."
But it changed again. There were seven service breaks in the second set. Only Sabatini's loose play in the 11th game gave Fernandez a final lead, the Argentine slicing a forehand into the net to trail, 5-6. Finally, Fernandez held serve with a measure of confidence, at 40-0 standing toe to toe with Sabatini and winning a volley exhange, punching a forehand past her.
The third set went against the previous two. Sabatini broke Fernandez in the eighth game. Fernandez fell behind by 15-40 on two loose forehand errors and Sabatini's picked-off backhand volley. Fernandez worked back to deuce, Sabatini slapping two backhands in the net and sinking to her knees in anguish. But she made a gentle backhand drop volley for a fourth break point, and jumped on the next serve, ripping a forehand down the line and scrambling to net yet again for twisting backhand drop-volley winner.
"I pressed too much when I shouldn't have," Fernandez said. "I rushed too much when she came up. I should have just picked a spot and hit to it. It's something I'll learn from."
Sabatini's backhand volley in the last game for double-match point showed how much confidence she has developed as a volleyer. It shot down the line so quickly that Fernandez, who had just seared a backhand pass attempt she thought won her the point, could not even start for it.
"I turned around and saw the ball was in and said, 'Wow,' " Sabatini said. "She didn't move."