At 16, Seles Savoring French Roll : Tennis: She comes back from four set points down in tiebreaker to upset Graf and become the youngest to win Grand Slam title in Paris.
A reign fell Saturday on the red clay courts of Roland Garros Stadium, where a champion from a newer, younger generation emerged in women’s tennis.
Sixteen-year-old Monica Seles, a Yugoslav living in Florida, won the French Open, her sixth consecutive tournament victory, by beating Steffi Graf, the best player in the world, for the second time in three weeks.
Only a 56-minute rain delay interrupted Seles in a 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 victory and a place in history as the youngest French Open champion at 16 years and six months. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario was 17 when she beat Graf for the title last year.
“It feels great,” Seles said. “It’s incredible.”
When it was over, as the last in a series of Graf’s erring forehands drifted past the baseline, Seles tossed her racket high into the air.
Brushing away a tear, she met Graf at the net and shook her hand. Then Seles ran toward her cartoonist father/coach Karolj, who leaned out of the stands to hand her the red tie he had been wearing.
But it was Graf who gift-wrapped the match with a stunning collapse in the first-set tiebreaker, which she led, 5-0 and then 6-2, only to squander all four set points, one on a double fault.
Peter Graf provided a visual barometer of his daughter’s play as he sunk lower and lower into his chair. Sitting behind a banner, soon only Herr Graf’s head was visible.
“I just played them very bad,” Graf said. “I was sure I was going to win (the tiebreaker).”
Seles’ 32nd consecutive victory and her Grand Slam title also continued a puzzling slump by Graf, both at the French Open and against Seles.
After Graf, 20, lost to Sanchez Vicario in last year’s final, she didn’t lose again until Seles ended her 66-match winning streak three weeks ago in the final of the German Open in Berlin.
In a sport historically dominated by a single player, from Billie Jean King to Chris Evert to Martina Navratilova to Graf, Seles’ victory seems to signal an end to the German’s virtual one-woman rule.
Graf addressed her new challengers in a post-match press conference. She was asked if players such as Seles and 14-year-old American Jennifer Capriati are providing new motivation for her.
“I have enough motivation already,” Graf said. “It’s just good to see some new faces.”
Graf probably has seen enough of Seles.
“She’s not a nightmare yet,” Graf said. “I hope she’s not becoming one, either.”
What may cause Graf a sleepless night or two is the way she played the tiebreaker, which Graf said cost her the match.
In Graf’s 13th consecutive Grand Slam final, Seles took a 3-1 lead in 14 minutes before play was halted because of rain.
But after a delay of nearly an hour, Graf broke back twice to level the match at 5-5 and heading for 6-6. In the tiebreaker, Graf controlled from the start. She led, 5-0, in a blink and when Seles sent a forehand into the net, Graf held four match points at 6-2.
What happened the rest of the way was almost eerie, since it involved a collapse of the No. 1 player in the world.
Set point 1, 6-2: Seles booms a forehand crosscourt service return winner.
Set point 2, 6-3: Seles hits a service winner.
Set point 3, 6-4: Seles coaxes a weak lob from Graf, then puts away an overhead.
Set point 4, 6-5: Graf double faults.
Seles had found a game plan when it seemed the tiebreaker was a lost cause.
“At 5-0, I just wanted to get back to 5-all,” Seles said. “Then she double faults at 6-5. Then I knew I had won when I got back to 6-all.”
She was right. When Graf’s crosscourt forehand sailed long, Seles had her own set point at 7-6. She quickly cashed it in. As she launched a forehand passing shot down the line, Seles had won the first set.
She pumped her fists, a la Jimmy Connors. Karolj high-fived everyone within reach in the stands. Seles could not believe her good fortune.
“If I would have known it beforehand, I never would have believed it,” she said.
Graf rued her blunder in the tiebreaker. “If I had won the first set, I would have won the match,” she said. “But I didn’t.”
Seles took another 3-0 lead to start the second set and once again Graf came back, breaking back to 3-2. Seles saved two break points and held for 5-4 when Graf put a forehand beyond the baseline.
Graf served a last time. Seles got to 15-15 when the ball Graf hit clipped the net cord and skipped wide. Seles’ 16th and last backhand winner set up championship point and Graf’s final misplaced forehand.
Graf won only 40% of the points on her second serve and had more unforced errors (35) than winners (28). Her forehand, her biggest weapon, also failed her: 17 winners from that side and 18 errors.
Graf had not lost in consecutive tournaments since 1986. In a subdued concession speech, Graf said she was not playing loosely or with confidence.
“I think I am lacking a little bit of confidence now,” she said. “I am not hitting the ball like I used to. If you want to go for your shots, you hit the ball a little early. I am a little late.
“There is a little bit of something missing.”
What’s missing is Graf holding up another Grand Slam trophy. That Seles would be doing it seemed improbable given her problems in the early rounds.
In the second round, Seles went three sets to beat Helen Kelesi. In the third round, she needed two tiebreakers to beat Leila Meskhi and trailed Manuela Maleeva, 4-1, in the third set of a quarterfinal.
Seles said she felt the weight of protecting her No. 3 ranking as well as the mental and physical burden of winning her last five tournaments. She had come up with another game plan.
“I just realized, ‘Let’s play,’ ” Seles said. “It’s better to play freely without any pressure, just to get out there and have fun.”
Oh, yes. Seles has one more plan. She has wanted a car for several months and figures this is a pretty good time to ask her parents, possibly because she had just won $293,000 and her first Grand Slam title.
“I can’t think of a better time than this,” Seles said.