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Seles Taking Course in Advanced French

Tennis: Well ahead of schedule on climb back to top, she is seeking her fourth Open title.

June 06, 1998|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The eight-month plan has turned into, well, something closer to an eight-day program.

Early at the French Open, Monica Seles and her coach, Gavin Hopper, were talking about aiming for the 1999 Australian Open, realizing it might take some time to get back to the top of women's tennis.

After all, wasn't this supposed to be a brand-new era, filled with stronger, cockier and younger baseliners?

Seles' answer has come through with a vengeance: So what?

Since arriving in Paris, Seles has been nothing short of amazing, on and off the court, culminating in an unexpected appearance today in the French Open final against fourth-seeded Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain.

The sixth-seeded Seles, 24, is trying to win her fourth French title, having won three consecutive championships at Roland Garros, starting from when she was a 16-year-old in 1990. Sanchez Vicario has won here twice before, in 1989 and 1994.

Seles is playing in her first tournament since her father and coach, Karolj, died of cancer May 14, and has steadfastly refused to turn this French Open into something mawkish and maudlin.

She gradually has picked up her game in each round and came up with a classic semifinal performance, defeating top-seeded Martina Hingis, 6-3, 6-2. Seles has lost two sets in six matches.

"I knew I would have to come out and play some really great tennis," said Seles, who lost to Hingis in three sets here last year in the semifinals. "It was, to a certain degree, up to me, if I could do that. Last year, I came very close, but I couldn't do it. This year, I just said, 'I'm going to try to do that again.' "

She was asked if a victory today would be the greatest of her Grand Slam titles.

"I don't want to rank them," Seles said. "I never ranked one of them above the other one. I would just love to win the most that I can."

Sanchez Vicario has defeated Seles twice in 16 previous matches, and never on clay, including the 1991 French Open final. The 26-year-old Spaniard was not expected to reach this final based on her recent clay-court results. Her best clay-court tournament in 1998 was the Italian Open, a three-set semifinal loss to Venus Williams.

In Paris, Serena Williams was twice within two points of defeating Sanchez Vicario in the fourth round. But Sanchez Vicario, in her usual fashion, fought her way back from a 6-4, 5-2 deficit.

"It is normal [people] talk about the young players, because there is the new generation," Sanchez Vicario said. "If I tell you the truth, I think that can help me. You don't have any pressure. You can sneak around. If you do the right thing, you are there."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Women's Final

* Today: Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (4) vs. Monica Seles (6)

* TV: Noon, Channel 4 (delayed)

* Last time: Sanchez Vicario beat Seles in three sets in the WTA Championships in November, but Seles has a 14-2 edge lifetime.

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