FRENCH OPEN : Seles Wins Grand Finale : Tennis: She continues her streak in the major tournaments by outlasting Graf, 6-2, 3-6, 10-8.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time Monica Seles and Steffi Graf got around to really playing in the French Open final Saturday at Roland Garros Stadium, they were entangled in a third set neither was going to lose easily.

By the time they walked off the court, tired and emotionally spent after 2 hours 43 minutes of rough-and-tumble tennis, neither would forget what had transpired on Center Court.

Seles won her third consecutive French Open title by outlasting Graf, 6-2, 3-6, 10-8, in a match with enough theater for a Shakespeare festival.

The third set kept the 16,500 Center Court fans on edge for 91 minutes, as much for its emotional swings as its brilliant action.

It was fitting that Seles, ranked No. 1, and Graf, ranked No. 2, reached a juncture in their match where winning was the hardest part.

"We both deserved to win," Seles said.

The lead switched three times in the first set, and each time one player took advantage, the other responded with aggressive shots that neutralized her opponent.

Graf, stripping the facade of a cool persona, played with a vengeance when her hopes were jeopardized. She saved five match points, including four in the ninth game that took 16 points to decide.

She dug out of deficits of 3-1 and 5-3 to continue pursuit of her third French Open title. She had not won here since 1988, and she wanted this so much that she challenged the chair umpire and lines officials whenever she thought a Seles winner was questionable.

But for all the resolve Graf could muster, Seles, 18, had a little more. And when it ended, when Graf returned a second serve meekly into the net with a forehand, not enough could be said about Seles' fortitude.

Sure, she was tired, she said.

"I think at that point, everybody is tired," Graf said.

Seles, who has won every Grand Slam tournament final she has played, won her sixth major event--her fifth in a row. The only crease in the string was last year's Wimbledon, which she skipped because of an illness she never fully explained.

"It is the most emotional match I played ever . . . in any tournament," Seles said. "If I would have lost, it would be very tough."

Graf, who has won 10 Grand Slam tournaments in 17 final appearances, someday can tell her how it feels. Saturday's was as disappointing as any loss she has experienced. Although acknowledging her remarkable effort in the third set, Graf was disheartened.

"There is no satisfaction," she said.

After coming so close, Graf, 23, did not lose it as much as Seles won it.

Seles kept her opponent on the defensive from the first set, taking a 1-0 lead after 27 minutes of play. The two started tentatively, content with patty-cake rallies. When Seles increased the pace, Graf had no answer.

Graf tried to mix her shot selection to take the power out of Seles' two-handed strokes. Graf sent slicing balls across the net, hoping to interrupt Seles' rhythm.

But it was Graf's big serve that resuscitated her. That, and sound returns. Graf broke Seles three times in the second set, and the match settled into a struggle.

When Seles broke Graf in the third game of the third set, it appeared she would soon become the first woman to win three in a row at Roland Garros since Hilde Sperling in 1937. Then came another swing when Seles failed to end it in the ninth game. She said she started thinking about all those match points.

"A lot of times, I cannot forget the chances that I had," Seles said. "Looking back now, Steffi hit some great shots."

Just when Graf, who had 66 unforced errors to Seles' 30, was down to her final shot, she responded with a big winner. Relying on a rifle forehand, Graf attacked the corners. Seles bounded for each ball but was unable to reach the ones that hit the deep corner lines.

"I think the key thing was really to hold my serve," Seles said. "I was on the run too much."

Graf's shots were so precisely placed that Seles had to resort to a one-handed backhand for extra stretch. Sometimes, she was able to keep a rally alive and eventually win the point. Mostly, though, she was running in circles.

By the end of the match, Seles was run down--alert, but exhausted. Graf's returns came at her in slow motion, she said.

Seles served for the match at 8-7, but was broken. She broke back, and it was hers to win. Graf hit a backhand slice in the net for Seles' fifth match point at 40-15. Graf saved it with a forehand pass. Then Seles she missed her first serve at 40-30.

Her second serve was good, and suddenly it was over as Graf's forehand return went into the net. She ran to the net to hug Graf.

"She is definitely a tough one," Graf said.

Said Seles: "It couldn't have been a better final."

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP

Petr Korda, who has not faced a seeded player during the tournament, meets with top-seeded Jim Courier in the final. C8

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