This was the last place Steffi Graf expected to be: Down in the dirt, her right side coated in the fine red clay of Roland Garros. Graf had slipped midway through her French Open semifinal match against Monica Seles, but it was hard to say whether it was the fall itself that surprised Graf or the fact that she was on the court at all.
"Deep down, I just didn't think I would be here," said Graf, who was battling back problems last month. "Honestly, I came here to get in a few matches before Wimbledon, not really thinking I'd be doing that well."
Graf may end up leaving Paris with more than practice time, thanks to a wind-swept, come-from-behind 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-4 win over Seles this afternoon. The victory earned the sixth-seeded Graf a ticket to Saturday's final, her first appearance in a Grand Slam final since she won three of four Slams in 1996. Nine days shy of her 30th birthday, she will face top-ranked Martina Hingis, 18, who handily disposed of defending champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 6-3, 6-2.
"I think [Sanchez-Vicario and I] have pretty much the same type of game, just mine is better in the way that I have better shots, better technique," Hingis said. As for the final, she said, "I pretty much actually would prefer playing Steffi in a way, because I lost to Monica last year. Steffi, with the absence the last two years, I'd hope she'd be a little bit nervous."
Graf laughed when she heard Hingis's comments, promising to be quite relaxed on Saturday, although she acknowledged that there have been several times this year that she felt anything but calm. She said she played a "terrible match" against Venus Williams in the Lipton Championships semifinals at Key Biscayne, Fla., and she fell apart against Seles in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.
But if that loss in Melbourne haunted her, she didn't show it today. As Court Central was battered by winds that accompanied intermittent thunderstorms, she traded breaks with the third-seeded Seles in the first set, eventually forcing a tiebreaker that Seles won relatively easily, but she did not appear discouraged. She came back in the second set, starting her service game strong and then breaking Seles in the fourth game with a drop shot that Seles could not return.
"Even though I lost the first set, I didn't have the feeling that the match was over at all," Graf said. "At that point for me, not too much had happened yet, and I think that showed the way I started the second set. I wanted to get a break, and that's what I did."
It was in the fifth game of the second set that Graf slipped, and while she required no medical attention -- just a few stiff swipes to clean her skirt -- at another point in the match she asked for the trainer to examine her eye. A few drops cleared the red dust that had been bothering her, and Graf later won the set on her serve.
Graf then broke Seles to win the first game of the third set, and when she won her service game as well it appeared she would walk away with the match. But Seles won the next three games, taking a 3-2 lead as the stadium crowd began clapping to rally Graf.
"I felt I had chances, and it obviously comes down to one or two points," Seles said. "It was very gusty, very windy. I think it was very difficult just to get into a rhythm."
Graf finally took control when she broke Seles to go up 5-4. Graf had double match point in her service game, but she succeeded on her first try, serving hard enough that Seles's return went long. As the ball dipped behind the baseline, Graf let out a squeal and jumped into the air, smiling until she reached the net to shake Seles's hand.
The result gave Graf a 10-5 career advantage over Seles, a record that extends back a decade to when the two first met here, in the 1989 French Open semifinals. Graf won that match as well, although she lost in the final to Sanchez-Vicario, who was just 17 years old. She hopes to fare better against Hingis on Saturday.
"I obviously don't feel like I have to prove anything," Graf said. "I'm extremely happy to be where I am right now, and I think for sure that's going to work for me."
Sanchez-Vicario had hoped to meet Graf in the final, but she had an enormous amount of trouble with Hingis, trailing 5-0 in the first set before staging a brief comeback. It wasn't enough to take the set, however, and Hingis breezed through the rest of the match, advancing to the finals in just over an hour.
"I read an article where it said that [Graf, Seles and Sanchez-Vicario] won 11 of the last 12 at Roland Garros," Hingis said. "I feel kind of in a good party, and honored to be in this group, you know, one of the best."
Where: Roland Garros, Paris.
Defending Champions: Carlos Moya and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
Today's TV: 10 a.m., WRC-4, WBAL-11 (taped); 1 p.m., USA (taped).
Yesterday's Key Results: Women's Singles Semifinals -- Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, def. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (7), Spain, 6-3, 6-2; Steffi Graf (6), Germany, def. Monica Seles (3), Sarasota, Fla., 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-4. Men's Doubles Semifinals -- Goran Ivanisevic, Croatia, and Jeff Tarango, Manhattan Beach, Calif., def. Pablo Albano, Argentina, and Tomas Carbonell, Spain, 7-5, 6-4; Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes (1), India, def. Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstrom, Sweden, 6-4, 6-3.
Today's Featured Matches: Men's Singles Semifinals -- Fernando Meligeni, Brazil, vs. Andrei Medvedev, Ukraine; Dominik Hrbaty, Slovakia, vs. Andre Agassi (13), Las Vegas. Women's Doubles Final -- Lindsay Davenport, Newport Beach, Calif., and Mary Pierce (12), France, vs. Serena Williams and Venus Williams (9), Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Remaining Women's Singles Schedule: Final, Saturday.
Remaining Men's Singles Schedule: Final, Sunday.
CAPTION: Steffi Graf is triumphant after her 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-4 semifinal win over Monica Seles in Paris.