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Suddenly, She's Looking Like Graf of Old Instead of Old Graf

Tennis: Unseeded German wears down fifth-seeded Seles and advances to semifinals at Chase Championships.

November 20, 1998|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Maybe something otherworldly happened behind the doors of the operating room when Steffi Graf had minor surgery on her right hand in September.

A nervous, error-prone 29-year-old entered the surgery lacking her trademark forehand weapon--at least consistently--as well as her beguiling slice backhand.

The post-op verdict?

Let's put it this way: The sassy, brassy teens of the WTA tour are no longer dismissing Graf as a thing of the past.

Twelve singles matches after the autumn surgery, Graf remains unbeaten. Her biggest test, in terms of emotional baggage and past history, came on Thursday in the form of Monica Seles in the Chase Championships at Madison Square Garden.

Graf, unseeded here, survived a spirited onslaught of groundstrokes and gradually wore down the flu-ridden and fifth-seeded Seles, 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, in a gripping one-hour, 47-minute quarterfinal, winning it on her fifth match point with a deep forehand in the corner.

Her reaction was one of relief mixed with joy. After the post-match handshake, Graf sat in her courtside chair and simply threw her head back.

"Obviously the last 2 1/2 weeks have been amazing. Matches like that tops it off," said Graf, who will play either Lindsay Davenport or Nathalie Tauziat in the semifinals. "I hope I don't have to answer anymore questions why I am doing it, why I am trying what I am doing. I think it speaks for itself. It has been great."

During this two-tournament, 12-match winning streak, she defeated second-ranked Martina Hingis in the quarterfinals at Philadelphia and then the top-ranked Davenport in the final on Sunday.

Here, she defeated defending Chase champion Jana Novotna in the first round. It was the first time in pro tennis history that a woman has defeated the top three ranked players in a span of four matches.

Graf, who started the year coming off knee surgery, endured a variety of various other injuries and even mulled retirement before Wimbledon.

"There's been so many important matches," she said. "I think last week was important than it has been going this week because it made me realize I can do it. And at that point, I really didn't believe I could do it yet."

For her, it is starting to feel like a dream, after the many months of angst.

"Oh yeah, it's been amazing, really," she said. "It's not possible to describe what I'm going through right now. I am just sitting there and I can't believe it. It has just been amazing, that is all I can say. But it is paying off, the work and the difficult times.

"It has been a thrill to be where I am right now."

Seles was probably one of the few players who did not dismiss Graf earlier in the year.

"I always see Steffi as a contender," Seles said. "Someone who has done so well in their career, they just don't disappear. She is still in better shape than most of the players."

Usually, the only time you would find Graf versus Seles was in a final. It is the earliest stage the two have met in a tournament since playing in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1989.

The contest was of a surprising high quality, considering Seles is still recovering from flu. It turned out to be one of the best matches on the tour in 1998, as Graf admitted she simply wanted to make it a better match after getting blown off the court in a 24-minute first set.

In the second and third sets, Graf kept the rallies going longer, maintaining decent depth on her groundstrokes and she picked up the pace on her own serve. In the third, Seles looked weary and Graf broke her at 15 in the ninth game.

It was a battle to finish it off, as Seles fought off four match points in the final game. But she never could earn a break point in that last game.

"I was just so glad to be able to come back and win this match after she came out and played so well in the first set," Graf said. "It was just amazing for me to come back and win this match."

She could even joke about the injury timeout she needed in the third set.

"A nice blister. A big blister," she said, smiling.

*

Like Graf, Irina Spirlea of Romania had to wait until last week to qualify for the season-ending tournament. And she has followed the pattern of Graf, making the most of her opportunity, defeating Dominique Van Roost of Belgium, 6-2, 6-3, in an earlier quarterfinal match on Thursday night.

In the semifinals, Spirlea will play the winner of tonight's quarterfinal between second-seeded Martina Hingis of Switzerland and sixth-seeded Mary Pierce of France.

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