It’s daunting enough to play Steffi Graf any time, but playing the co-No. 1-ranked player at a Grand Slam tournament is almost always suicidal.
Especially for Conchita Martinez, Graf’s opponent in today’s French Open semifinal.
Graf, the defending champion, leads the series between the two, 12-1, and she’s playing as well as she can on clay.
Graf has won 30 clay-court titles and beaten Martinez all three times they have played on the surface.
However, the third-seeded Martinez grew up on clay in Spain and, as preparation for this tournament, she won the Italian Open for the fourth consecutive year.
Martinez defeated two seeded players to get this far, as has Graf, but Martinez has had to work harder. Graf has not been extended to three sets and has played only 62 games.
Graf bracketed Martinez’s 1995 winning streak of 26 matches. After losing to Graf at Delray Beach, Fla., Martinez did not lose again until she met Graf here in the semifinals last year. They have played here three times and Graf has never lost.
Graf has been progressing gingerly and appears to have held much in reserve.
“I’m not trying to make too much,” she said. “Sometimes I would try to go for crazy shots, take too much risk right from the beginning, instead of just playing point by point, playing solid tennis and not making too many mistakes.”
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a two-time champion here, is quite familiar with her semifinal opponent, Jana Novotna: The two have been doubles partners since 1994.
Novotna, seeded 10th, leads the head-to-head series, 6-5, but Sanchez Vicario, seeded fourth, has a 4-2 advantage on clay.
Novotna was impressive in defeating co-No. 1 Monica Seles in the quarterfinals and is capable of hitting from the baseline with Sanchez Vicario or rushing the net.
Sanchez Vicario is the game’s great counterpuncher and will use whatever tactic is necessary to win.
She was jeered by the French crowds for her strategy of hitting high lobs to Katrina Habsudova, her quarterfinal opponent. Sanchez Vicario was also attacked by some reporters for the tactic, calling it cowardly and negative.
The Spaniard was understandably angry at the charge and felt compelled to state the obvious: “I don’t care what the crowd says. You always try to do what the other player doesn’t like to play. She hates [high lobs]--I win the point. I am not going to play the way she likes to play.”