In an extremely emotional victory in another vintage match between two legends, Steffi Graf took her game high above the Eiffel Tower and soared past Monica Seles 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-4 to move into the final of Roland Garros.
The nail biting contest in gusty winds was a test of two of the game’s strongest wills, with the 21-time Grand Slam champion ripping two lethal forehand winners to give herself two match points. Graf converted on the first one with a big service winner down the tee. The often-injured 29-year-old let out a yell that shook Stade Roland Garros and she left the court shedding tears of joy.
“It was a very tough, close match,” Graf said. “I was able to take the risks when I needed to, especially at the end of the third set. I was very happy the way I closed out the match. It was a great atmosphere out there again. It was amazing to be out there…..It was extreme joy.”
Seles added, “I had my chances. It obviously comes down to one or two points. Those times Steffi played better and I played way too defensively. That’s why she came out the winner.”
As has been the case in most of their previous 14 matches, the outcome was determined by which woman served better and who would win the majority of rallies between Graf’s wicked slice backhand and Seles’ rolling topspin forehand. Graf prevailed, but barely, as Seles often dug her left heel in the dirt and whacked Graf’s slice down the line. But in many of the rallies, Seles failed to pick up Graf’s slice and dumped it into the net, or Graf was able to position Seles far enough into the corner so she could run around her backhand and paste a forehand winner.
“My forehand wasn’t working today, not just my attacking one, but my defensive one was nowhere,” said Seles, who still managed to hit 11 winners off her forehand side. “Because of the wind, my footwork wasn’t so good. That didn’t help my forehand.”
Graf said her backhand slice grew more effective as the match wore on. “In the beginning, I was trying to vary it too much,” Graf said. “I was trying to play down the line, down the middle. Toward the end, I wanted to go for it a little more. I realized that I needed to put a lot more depth on my slice and be aggressive with it. It worked, especially in the third set, very well….It’s very flat, it doesn’t stay up, there’s almost no chance for her to play down the line with a two-handed shot. She can only play my backhand. So she doesn’t have a lot of possibilities.”
The nearly two-hour match saw Seles race out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first set, when Graf double-faulted on break point. The German would break back to 3-3 when Seles erred on her favorite shot, her backhand-down-the-line. The two served brilliantly into the tiebreaker, where Graf immediately got herself into a 1-4 hole behind three unforced errors. Seles was brilliant in closing out the breaker, crushing a forehand down-the-line winner, rolling a one-handed forehand crosscourt in front of the service line that Graf couldn’t touch, and smoking a service winner. Graf appeared to be in trouble to open the second set, when the
Yugoslavian-American held a break point, but Graf crunched a forehand down the line winner and held with an inside-out forehand. Graf broke Seles to go up 3-1 and fought off two break points to go ahead 5-2. Running with an abandon that the tennis world hasn’t seen in three years, Graf raced through the set’s final game, closing it out with a service winner.
Graf, a five-time Roland Garros champion, kept the pressure on at the beginning of the third set, when Seles lost control of her forehand and was broken to 0-1. But in perhaps the match’s most memorable game, Seles broke back to 2-2. After Graf held Seles off on two break points with a gorgeous drop shot and a service winner, Seles gained her third break point after a 21-ball, end-to-end rally that saw Graf blow an easy forehand pass. Graf then committed a backhand unforced error to hand Seles the game.
The match turned with the three-time Roland Garros champ Seles serving at 4-4, when she appeared exhausted shoveling out Graf’s slice, that was barely skidding off the clay. On her first break point, Graf belted a forehand crosscourt winner to gain a 5-4 edge. She then held to win the match. Graf, who will face Martina Hingis in the final, finished the match with 23 forehand winners, 11 service winners and three aces.
“I never felt comfortable in the wind,” Seles said. “I had a hard time getting my racket head speed. Even when I was playing well, I don’t think I played my groundstrokes as well as I should have.”
Graf, who hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since the ’96 U.S. Open, didn’t expect to be in the final. In fact, she said that she was only using Roland Garros as a warm-up to Wimbledon, a tournament she has won seven times and an event she still feels she owns. But on Thursday, when asked what her best chance to win a Grand Slam was, she answered, “Paris.”