Seles Finally Beats Steffi, Hingis Pounds Pierce

It took six years and an infinite amount of emotional turmoil, but Monica Seles returned to the scene of her last triumph over Steffi Graf and used her beloved Rebound Ace to her advantage, whipping the German 7-5, 6-1 to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open on Wednesday.

No. 2 and two-time defending champion Martina Hingis also rolled, punching out No. 7 Mary Pierce for the third year in a row, this time with a quick 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Seles, the one-time dominant No. 1, hadn’t beaten Graf before Wednesday since her return to the Tour in 1995, after she took off 27 months to recover from stab wounds inflicted on her by a crazed German fan who was allegedly obsessed with Graf. The two legends, who won 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them, have a cool relationship and both have said that they could never be friends. The last time Seles had bested Graf was in a three-set ’93 Australian Open final, considered by many observers to be one of the best women’s matches of the decade.

As she has done during the past few years, Seles downplayed any discussion of experiencing emotional fervor when she plays Graf. “I hate to talk about it,” said Seles, a four-time Australian Open champion who has never lost at Melbourne Park. “I just play the ball. Steffi is no longer the best player in the world, Martina and Lindsay [Davenport] are.”

In their three post-stabbing matches, Graf managed to exhaust Seles in long rallies, but her failure to keep the aggressive Yugoslav-American guessing on her service games on Wednesday put her in a vulnerable position most of the day.

Graf held a 4-3 lead in the first set, but double-faulted to hand her rival the game. After that, Seles dominated the affair, reeling off eight straight games with deep, consistent crosscourt backhands that negated Graf’s slice backhand, and ripping backhand winners from all angles of the court.

“I got tight,” said Graf, who added that she had never experienced so long a lapse at any time in her long career. “I couldn’t get a first serve in. I lost my mental game totally. I couldn’t put a ball in the court, I couldn’t focus on the next point … I’m usually able to turn it around and I tried to tell myself to loosen up, but I couldn’t shake it off.”

Once a giggling, delightful personality off-court, Seles has become dour and serious since the death of her father last year and the recent passing of her grandmother. She cracked nary a smile after the win.

“To me, happiness is not based on tennis,” Seles said. “But I am glad I did what I wanted to do on court … It was good for me to be there in my head all day because I haven’t always been.”

Graf, who has been riddled with injures the past two years and hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since the ’96 US Open, wasn’t pleased with her progress during the event. “I’m a little disappointed,” she said. “I didn’t go into this tournament with enough confidence and I don’t know why.”

Seles brought out two fairly new features in her game – a running one-handed forehand and an occasional serve-and-volley. She said she may get rid of her two-handed forehand soon. “My dad used to tell me I would eventually use the one-hander in matches and I think that one day is kind of now.”

Of her forays to the net, the one-time planted-to-the-baseline competitor said, “It’s getting there. Guys who have watched me practice have said ‘I didn’t realize you have such a great volley’, and guys don’t give girls complements easily. I hit volleys great in practice so there’s no reason I shouldn’t be coming in during matches. I hope before my career is over I’ve given it a good try.”

The so-called “Big Babe” of tennis, Pierce was left wailing after her loss to Hingis. Nursing an abdominal stain and a sore throat, she moved poorly most of the day. Hingis, who returned brilliantly and had Pierce on a string, said she is looking forward to facing Seles on Thursday. Seles knocked Hingis out of Roland Garros in ’98 but she got revenge at the ’98 US Open.

“You have to keep Monica on the run and get a lot of balls back and try to be faster than her, otherwise she just goes for everything,” said Hingis, who owns a 6-2 record against her. “You have to keep the rallies long and go for your chances.”