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U.S. OPEN : 3-Set Madness: Navratilova Is 30-Something Else; Seles Wins

September 07, 1991|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — This is not the U.S. Open, it's a study on aging.

If it isn't 39-year-old Jimmy Connors throwing his creaky bones around the court to make the men's semifinals, then it's 34-year-old Martina Navratilova and her surgically repaired knees showing up in the women's final.

So here is the matchup today: A woman who will be 35 next month against Monica Seles, 17, who wasn't even born the first time Navratilova played in the Open.

This isn't a generation gap, it's a generation canyon.

"Makes no difference whether she is 5 or 50, I still have to win the match," Navratilova said Friday after completing a routinely bizarre 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (8-6), 6-4 upset of No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf.

Then there was the spectacle of two teens knocking the absolute fuzz off the ball.

Seles' 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3) victory over Jennifer Capriati not only ended the 15-year-old's opportunity for her first Grand Slam tournament final, but it was also every bit the equal of Navratilova's match in strangeness.

How strange was it? This match didn't need a chair umpire, it needed an analyst. Consider:

--There were eight service breaks in the deciding set.

--Capriati served for the match twice, at 5-4 and 6-5, and lost her serve both times.

--Capriati led the tiebreaker, 3-2, and didn't win another point.

If a key point could be identified in the wreckage, it was at 3-3 in the tiebreaker. Capriati was presented with a short ball, swung a high backhand and dumped it into the net.

"It's just that everything was happening so fast," Capriati said. "When I missed that, I thought 'Oh-oh, it might mean something.' "

If nothing else, Capriati was clairvoyant. Seles took a deep breath, mashed a service winner for 5-3, took a short ball that clipped the net cord and drilled it down the line for 6-3, then slammed a forehand in the corner to win it on her first match point.

Seconds later, Seles was shaking hands with Capriati across the net, secure in the knowledge that the No. 1 ranking was hers again.

Was Seles happy?

"I didn't expect to be in the final of the Open," she said. "I am just very happy where am I."

That was not a question, just a couple of words mixed up, which Seles does sometimes. Something she does just about all the time is hit the ball so hard it looks like a yellow blur.

While wary, Navratilova believes this to be a good tactic. "She smacks them as hard as she can and they usually go in," Navratilova said.

As for the serves of Navratilova and Graf in their third set, they usually went out. For a while, it seemed as if no one could hold serve unless they put handles on it.

Now, try to keep up: Navratilova broke Graf for 1-0. Navratilova broke Graf for 3-0. Graf broke Navratilova for 3-1. Navratilova broke Graf for 4-1. Graf broke Navratilova for 4-2.

"The third set was kind of bad," Graf said. "I mean, being two breaks down, it was pretty much over, I think."

But it wasn't. For some reason, there were no further breaks, and Navratilova found herself standing at the line serving for the match at 5-4.

Graf forced a break point, but Navratilova aced her. Graf held another break point, but Navratilova unloaded three big serves to end it, bounding off happily to her eighth U.S. Open final.

"I just didn't lie down and die the way I used to," Navratilova said. "This time, I hung in there."

Graf looked withered afterward. When she was asked how she would like to end the year, she said: "With a nice holiday."

There will be much to think about. For instance, she might have trouble forgetting the double fault that gave Navratilova a 3-0 lead in the third set. She also could consider the slice backhand she lofted long to put Navratilova ahead two breaks again, at 4-1.

But most of all, Graf is going to have to live with the final game of the match when she held two break points, lost them both, then knocked a service return into the net to end it.

"Well, I was, I don't know," Graf said. "I just was expecting a little bit more from me, I have to say."

The last words would have to be said by Seles. After sending Capriati off in tears, Seles complimented her on her game.

"It's unbelievable that she's so young and playing so well," Seles said.

There is nothing like the sage words of a 17-year-old commenting on a 15-year-old.

* MEN'S SEMIFINALS: Sandwiched around the women's final will be Ivan Lendl against Stefan Edberg, then crowd favorite Jimmy Connors against French Open champion Jim Courier. C6

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