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Seles, Graf Defeat Different Demons

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Methodically, but not without effort, Monica Seles is returning to all the old haunts that she has been unable or unwilling to revisit.

In the case of the French Open, Seles has been physically unable to play here for three years. In the case of going back to the day she was stabbed on a tennis court, Seles has been mentally unwilling.

Seles’ match at Roland Garros against Magdalena Maleeva on Sunday forced Seles to remember.

It was Maleeva who sat in the adjacent chair during a changeover when Guenter Parche leaned out of the stands and stabbed Seles in the shoulder with a paring knife at a tournament in Hamburg, April 30, 1993.

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Seles won, 6-1, 6-1, Sunday, and seems prepared to deal with whatever demons dare to show themselves on or off the court.

Fighting battles on court, defending champion Steffi Graf overcame a furious charge from Mary Joe Fernandez, winning, 6-1, 7-6 (9-7), in a fourth-round match. The afternoon match was delayed 1 1/2 hours by a downpour.

Graf was forced to raise her game, after playing only 26 minutes in her match on Saturday, which she won after Petra Langrova was injured. Graf, being Graf, had no trouble.

Neither did Seles. Since returning to the tour in August, Seles has played well but struggled with injuries and memories. This is the tournament Seles was preparing for when she was stabbed. At that time she was the three-time defending champion and appeared on course to win for the fourth time.

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Playing the 13th-seeded Maleeva brought the memories to the surface. Seles was unable to sleep much Saturday night.

“I was pretty nervous this morning,” Seles said. “I was a little bit edgy in practice before the match. When I went out there, I stayed focused.

“During the changeover, it was really tough. I knew that coming into the match. I said to myself, ‘Just keep going and keep not thinking about it, it’s just another tennis match.’ That’s what I try to do.”

Seles’ concentration can seldom be faulted. She broke Maleeva in the opening game of the match and, difficult as it is to believe, it got worse for the Bulgarian.

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Some marveled at the level of Seles’ play, which had been, to use the tennis cliche, good enough to win. But Maleeva, who is a bright and attentive player, was not surprised. She, and most players on the tour know how deceptive Seles can be.

“The fact that she wasn’t playing so well, you shouldn’t really pay attention to that,” Maleeva said. “It’s Monica Seles, and when she needs to, she will rise to the occasion.

“She might look as if she doesn’t move well, but if she gets to the ball, she can do anything with it. That’s just the thing about her, in any given moment, she can do just about anything. She’s just a good player, and you have to really play out of your mind to beat her.”

Maleeva kept her head, and played badly.

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Fernandez has never beaten Graf in 15 meetings. Which is not to say the matches aren’t competitive. Sunday’s was no exception, at least in its latter stages.

Fernandez got nothing going in the first set and there was only a glimmer of aggression from the 11th-seeded player when play was suspended in the third game of the second set.

During the rain delay, Fernandez’s coach, Harold Solomon, caught her in the hallway under the stadium and emphatically emphasized the importance of getting to the net and attacking.

“When I came back out there I said, ‘The only way to beat her is to go out and hit as hard as you can, and go for it, especially when she’s playing as well as she is.’ Against a player like Steffi, you can’t afford to wait and see what happens. You really have to go after your shots and take chances. I did more of that in the second set.”

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Fernandez had two break points against Graf’s serve in the fourth game but the Graf forehand saved the break. Graf broke to go up, 4-3, but Fernandez broke back at love in the ninth game then held to bring it to 5-all.

Fernandez was torrid in the tiebreaker, taking a 4-0 lead. Graf passed her to get one point back, hit a service winner for another, hit two lines in one point for another and Fernandez sent a forehand approach shot long. Suddenly, the huge lead had disappeared.

“I felt it was really close at that moment,” Graf said. I knew I started off the tiebreaker with the first point where I should have made it, an easy forehand passing shot mistake. I knew with a few shots I could still get back because I was playing good tennis. I didn’t feel like it was going to be a rollover.”

But Fernandez was not finished. She fought off three match points before smacking a backhand into the net to end the match.

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