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Seles Shoots for Stars, Gets Venus

Tennis: She stops Williams' 24-match winning streak, advances to Australian Open semifinals.

January 23, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELBOURNE, Australia — The winner had fallen into the Rebound Ace trap before, having pulled off a memorable victory against her biggest rival, Steffi Graf, only to go through flat motions in her semifinal against Martina Hingis, winning only six games.

Monica Seles remembered the celebrate-too-soon lesson from three years ago at the Australian Open. Which is why she kept her feelings mostly hidden after Venus Williams netted a forehand on match point in what had been a ferocious, riveting baseline exchange.

Despite recording her first victory against Williams in seven matches--also stopping a 24-match winning streak--Seles didn't let her feet leave the ground Tuesday at the Australian Open. Nor did she let her smile linger, putting a business-as-usual cast on the proceedings after defeating the second-seeded Williams, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-3, in the quarterfinals in 1 hour 57 minutes.

This left Williams in the position of dictating the potential compelling story line. She respects Seles, and Williams' mother, Oracene, was heard saying that she hoped Seles would go on to win.

"I think more than anything she deserved to win and who knows what will happen?" Williams said. "Maybe she'll take the whole Slam home and that'll be like an exciting story. She will deserve it."

For the eighth-seeded Seles, it was too early to start talking about a storybook ending. Her last Grand Slam title came at the Australian Open in 1996, the lone Slam championship since she was stabbed by a deranged Graf fan in 1993.

Standing between Seles and her 10th Grand Slam title, at least immediately, is Hingis again in the semifinals. Although Hingis is 12-4 against Seles, Seles has won their last two matches, both in Southern California in August on a hard-court surface.

In the other semifinal, defending champion and No. 1 Jennifer Capriati will meet No. 4 Kim Clijsters of Belgium in a rematch of their French Open final last year. Neither had a difficult quarterfinal today. Clijsters beat No. 7 Justine Henin of Belgium, 6-2, 6-3, and reached her first Australian Open semifinal. Clijsters was better in almost every area, committing only 15 unforced errors to Henin's 30.

Henin had trouble adjusting to Clijsters' power, unable to find a Plan B. Amelie Mauresmo of France appeared to have the same problem against Capriati, never mounting much of a threat. Capriati, who won 6-2, 6-2, in 65 minutes, is rounding into top form and said she is no longer troubled by her hip flexors, but opted to keep her legs taped for protection.

"It's pretty tough to top last year," Capriati said. "It's the best I ever played. Today, I kind of had that same feeling. I was focused and concentrated. I played like I was on a mission. Last year that's how I played."

Seles also rekindled the past with her penetrating groundstrokes. Typical of this tournament, the winner was the player least injured, or least infirm. In the morning, Seles had a slight fever and said she had problems getting air. Williams' aching left knee felt fine, but she tweaked her right hamstring and left the court for eight minutes in the first set to receive treatment.

"She called the trainer and I thought, 'Gosh this is going to be one of those strange matches.' ... It was really weird circumstances and both of us were fighting a lot of stuff within ourselves," Seles said.

It was hard to find an appropriate rhythm against Williams, who seemed to alternate hitting aces (15) or a double fault (10). At times, her movement was terrific, then at other junctures, she felt she couldn't make the run and sprayed her groundstrokes, finishing with 49 unforced errors.

Seles appeared fitter than the last time she played Williams, at La Costa in August. In her prime, Seles was the dominant force, raising the standard with the hardest, most accurate groundstrokes. Since her last Slam victory, Seles has been trying to catch the new generation, making progress and then sliding back because of injuries.

The presence of former touring professional Mike Sell as her coach, since June, has helped stabilize her situation. He acknowledged he was a nervous wreck during the Williams match.

"Mike adds a lot of consistency to my workouts," Seles said. "It's just really been nice just to have someone that I can count on. I think that's been the most difficult throughout my career since my father passed away [in 1998]. It's just whoever would be working with me, something would happen, and they would have to leave. And it's tough when you keep changing."

Said Sell: "This is a fun time for her. Nobody expected she would be No. 1 in the world again. I feel and we feel she can."

Sell was asked if he missed the men's tour. "I get my competitiveness through Monica," he said. "To get her better is my highlight. She's a workaholic like I am."

*

(BEXING TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Women's Semifinals

Pairings for Thursday's women's semifinals at the Australian Open:

* Jennifer Capriati (1), United States, vs. Kim Clijsters (4), Belgium.

* Martina Hingis (3), Switzerland, vs. Monica Seles (8), United States.

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