PARIS — Once again, Steffi Graf got someplace in a hurry, slightly ahead of schedule. For the first time since 1996, she is back in a Grand Slam final, but, surprise, not at her beloved Wimbledon.
The sixth-seeded Graf defeated her longtime rival, third-seeded Monica Seles, 6-7 (7-2), 6-3, 6-4, on Thursday in the French Open semifinals. She will play Martina Hingis of Switzerland on Saturday--their first meeting in a Grand Slam final. The top-seeded Hingis easily dispatched defending champion and seventh-seeded Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain, 6-3, 6-2.
Hingis said she hopes Graf will be nervous because of her long absence from a Grand Slam final.
"I won't," Graf said, laughing.
Graf was beaming. And why not?
Although she has won the French Open five times, the 29-year-old from Germany has sort of a love-hate relationship with this tournament, frequently marred for her by illness or injury. She once joked that she was allergic to Paris.
Graf didn't play here last year, and her appearance was in doubt when she was hampered by a back injury earlier this spring during the clay-court season. Even a couple of days ago, Graf said her best chance to win a Grand Slam event was at Wimbledon.
"I think it's Paris," she said, smiling.
Graf prevailed under difficult conditions. It was a blustery, rainy day--the Hingis semifinal was delayed about an hour because of a storm. Everything seemed to be going wrong in Paris, including the second day of a crippling transit strike.
Graf stayed calm amid the chaos, the crazy weather and the pressure of Seles' ground strokes. Slowly, she picked apart Seles' forehand, using her slice backhand to keep the ball low. Finally, Seles unraveled in a litany of forehand errors.
"It was so windy out there," Graf said. "It was very gusty. It was not the perfect day to play tennis. But we were still able to do pretty well with the conditions out there. . . . Toward the end, I just felt I wanted to go for it a little more. Obviously, I realized I needed to put a lot of depth into my slice and be aggressive with it."
Said Seles: "I think it was very difficult to get any rhythm. There were some very strange points. It was probably one of the toughest in terms of conditions that I've played."
It was a reversal of their last meeting, at the Australian Open, in which Seles won the quarterfinal match, 7-5, 6-1. Seles could not figure out what keeps going wrong in Grand Slam semifinals. Graf broke her at 15 in the ninth game of the third set and held at 15, losing only two points in the final three games.
"It's been hard losing two times now in the semis," Seles said, also referring to the loss to Hingis at Australia. "I just have to figure it out. I don't know at this second. It's still just too fresh."
Graf's last appearance in a Grand Slam final was at the U.S. Open in 1996, when she beat Seles. She did not play here last year because of an ankle injury, and then she lost in the third round at Wimbledon and fourth at the U.S. Open.
Many were wondering if Graf still had it in her to reach a final--or win a major event.
"It is great after a few years to be in a final," she said. "That's something I really did not believe that I'd be able to do when I got here. I tried to play it down and didn't want to look at it. But deep down I just didn't think I would be here."
Since this was her very first Grand Slam title, in 1987, would it mean more if she won this again, so late in her career?
"Let me win it first," Graf said. "Then I can tell you. I think it's a big deal already to be where I am right now because I don't think too many of you, or even me, did think I'd be there on Saturday. So I think that's a very big step."
Hingis, winner of five Grand Slam titles, represents a formidable obstacle. The French Open is the only Grand Slam event to elude the 18-year-old, and she has not lost a set in six matches. Against Sanchez-Vicario, no slouch on clay, Hingis won the first five games in 19 minutes.
"We just have pretty much the same type of game, just me better in a way," Hingis said. "I have better shots, better technique. Everybody knows her forehand is a weakness, but you have to be able to take advantage of it. That type of game just suits me. Mine doesn't suit her, so she doesn't know how to finish off the point. I feel confident playing her. That's about it."
Sanchez-Vicario had struggled in 1999 with a wrist injury, so she was hardly disconsolate after failing to defend her title. She beat Seles in the final last year.
"I had a few chances, but I didn't take them," Sanchez-Vicario said. "Maybe it would be different if I would have taken some of those. But I'm happy with my performance because I think I gave my best. But I lost to the best player. She was much better than me today."
Leave it to Hingis to sum up the final weekend at Roland Garros, now that the pretenders have been brushed aside.
"It's two left at the end, the locker room [is] cleaned up," Hingis said.