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Paris' Unlikely Finalist : French Open: After barely surviving previous matches, Fernandez beats Sanchez Vicario, 6-2, 6-2, to advance to title match.


PARIS — It's a great time to be Mary Joe Fernandez. A couple of days ago, it appeared that she was about to become tennis' version of French toast against Gabriela Sabatini. But she rallied and won that match, and by Thursday night, she was close to becoming the toast of the town.

Fernandez, a 21-year-old pony-tailed Floridian who has suddenly learned to hit a forehand as if she were swinging a hammer, nailed down a spot in her first French Open final by upsetting Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-2, 6-2, in a semifinal showdown Thursday.

For Fernandez, it was another step in an improbable climb that has landed her in Saturday's final against another apparently unscalable height, the new No. 1 player in the world, Steffi Graf.

After dispensing of German countrywoman Anke Huber, 6-1, 6-1, Graf ascended to the top of the rankings, assuring herself of enough points to replace Monica Seles by reaching her sixth French Open final.

Graf, who in previous meetings had beaten Huber in Florida, Japan and Germany, beat her in 50 minutes Thursday. Huber, 0-6 against Graf, said she must have been nervous.

"Otherwise, I wouldn't play like this . . . just terrible," she said.

And then there is Fernandez, the surprise of the tournament.

Fernandez trailed Brenda Schultz, 6-2, 5-3, 30-0, and was two points away from losing in the fourth round. Fernandez won, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3.

"We were very lucky," said Harold Solomon, Fernandez's coach.

Then Fernandez trailed Sabatini, 6-1, 5-1, 40-30, and was one point from losing in the quarterfinals. Fernandez won, 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 10-8.

"Inspirational," Solomon said.

That brought up the semifinal and Sanchez Vicario, a perennial nemesis who had beaten Fernandez six of the seven times they played. And Fernandez won.

She did it by playing aggressively, attacking Sanchez Vicario on the ground and enticing her into mistakes. It turned out to be the right strategy.

Fernandez broke Sanchez Vicario's serve six times, watched her spray 33 unforced errors around Center Court at Roland Garros Stadium and strolled off the court secure in the knowledge that she had gone a lot farther than anyone could have expected.

It's all part of the plan, said Solomon, who laid out a blueprint for success a year and a half ago. The idea was to prepare Fernandez for the top three and to possibly win a Grand Slam tournament in three years.

"I think she's ready to do it now," Solomon said.

If so, she is going to have to do it against Graf, and that promises to be extremely difficult. Fernandez is 0-10 against Graf and has won only one set. Nevertheless, Solomon said there are reasons to be encouraged.

In the semifinals of the German Open, Fernandez led Graf by one set and 4-2 in the second, then by two breaks and 3-0 in the third before losing, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

"To beat Arantxa, 6-2, 6-2, on clay is pretty convincing, since she's been playing the best clay-court tennis of anyone," Solomon said.

According to Sanchez Vicario, it simply wasn't her day, and Fernandez had less to do with the outcome than she did.

"She just played OK," Sanchez Vicario said of Fernandez. "She didn't do much. I am the one that lost the match."

The new, improved Mary Joe Fernandez is the version that goes for winners instead of standing as a human backboard at the baseline. It has not been a particularly easy adjustment, she said.

"I have played a defensive game all my life, since I was a little girl," she said. "I was taught to hit the ball back and not to make any mistakes. It takes a while to change that. It is a big step for me, but I see that that is the way to go."

Graf blistered Huber, then sat back to wait for the No. 1 confirmation from the computer. She ended the 91-week reign by Seles, who has not played since she was knifed in the back by a fan during a match in Hamburg, Germany, April 30.

The last time Graf was No. 1 was Sept. 8, 1991, but she held the top spot for a record 186 weeks. Graf said she was not interested in her new ranking.

"I really don't care," she said. "I mean, this is nothing that is important to me. I'm in the finals in France, and that's what counts."

Graf has won singles titles in 11 Grand Slam events. Fernandez's ledger is not nearly as impressive. It shows only two previous appearances in finals, both losses. She was beaten by Graf in the 1990 Australian Open and by Seles in the 1992 Australian Open.

She will be the underdog again in the final, but Fernandez isn't worried about that now.

"I feel very fortunate to still be playing," she said.

Tennis Notes

Brothers Luke and Murphy Jensen of Ludington, Mich., made it to the doubles final with a 7-6 (7-3), 6-1 semifinal victory over Stefan Edberg and Petr Korda. The Jensens, unseeded, will play another unseeded team in Saturday's final. Mark Goellner and David Prinosil upset the top-seeded team of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, 7-6 (10-8), 6-2.

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