Steffi Graf looked as if she had crossed a desert in a sandstorm arms, face and legs coated in red dust, clothes caked in clay. In a very real sense she had completed a journey just as difficult.
Graf emerged with a dirt-creased smile from all that swirling dust Thursday, a 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-4 victor over longtime rival Monica Seles, and will play for her sixth French Open title against No. 1 Martina Hingis.
"Honestly, I came here to get a few matches before Wimbledon, not really thinking that I'd be doing that well," Graf said.
When she plays Saturday against Hingis, a 6-3, 6-2 winner over defending and three-time champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Graf will be appearing in her first Grand Slam final since she beat Seles to win the 1996 U.S. Open.
Two weeks shy of 30, Graf will be going for her 22nd major title. She wants to keep playing, she said, "until I can pick my own time when to quit."
The 18-year-old Hingis, who romped past Sanchez-Vicario with a 5-0 lead in the first set and a 4-0 lead in the second, will be trying to complete a career Grand Slam with her sixth major championship.
A year ago, Graf wept at the thought of how close she had come to forced retirement after endless injuries, surgeries and aborted comebacks.
The short list of those injuries, just since 1996, includes a fractured knee, bone spurs in her right wrist, a sprained ankle, and a strained hamstring. She was off the tour for eight months in one stretch after knee surgery, and missed many more months in bits and pieces.
Now she is running again with utter abandon, "heavy legs" her only complaint after six victories at Roland Garros.
"I always knew that the love for the game was still there," Graf said. "It was just a matter of being able to go out on the court and not have to worry about injuries."
She finally felt she had turned a corner shortly before Wimbledon last summer, her first major in more than a year. Though she lost in the third round of the tournament she had won seven times, Graf was encouraged by the absence of pain in her reconstructed left knee.
"It took a lot of tournaments to really believe that it's going to hold up," she said. "The few months before were very grueling at times in terms of not knowing."
Those doubts and all the rehabilitation she went through give a special significance to her achievement so far at the French, a surface that is more physically demanding than any other. The rallies are longer on clay, and the sliding can be perilous.
Graf fell hard once against Seles, trying to change directions. When she got up slowly, fans could not help but worry that she might have injured herself again. But she merely wiped herself off and kept going.
| Martina Hingis is still looking for her first French Open title. (AP)|
Against Seles, who has a long history of injuries herself, Graf faced an opponent she has now beaten 10 of the 15 times they've met. Each time they play, though, the matches are close and the rivalry is fierce.
The difference this time may have been in the way each coped with the wind that raked the court.
"It was very gusty, very difficult to get any rhythm," said Seles, a three-time French Open champion and a finalist last year. "There were some very strange points. It was probably one of the toughest in terms of conditions that I've played."
A morning cloudburst, which delayed the match between Hingis and Sanchez-Vicario 45 minutes, slowed the court. But as the wind dried it out and blew away the surface clay, the court became harder and faster.
"By the end, there was hardly any clay left on the court," Seles said.
While Graf's slice backhands and always-potent forehands seemed to cut through the wind and stay on the court, Seles' two-fisted forehands were flying all over.
Yet the match remained tight to the very end, when Graf broke Seles for a 5-4 lead. Graf set up that break with a couple of crushing shots, but at 15-40 she reverted to a little gamesmanship. As Seles stood ready to serve, Graf went off to the side to grab a towel and wipe off some sweat and dirt.
Seles seemed annoyed to be waiting at that moment, but she didn't harp on it much afterward.
"Different players will do different things," she said. "That's Steffi's tactic. To me, at that point I really don't worry about it too much because I'm facing two breakpoints at a very bad time."
When Seles finally served, Graf leaped with a forehand and drove it back so hard that Seles could only dump it in the net with a weak backhand.
"I kind of guessed that she was going for the big serve to the forehand," Graf said. "That's what she usually does. Even if she's down, she's trying for that. I was very much aware of that. I was ready for it."
Graf then served out the match, finishing with a serve on the tee that Seles lunged after but whacked long.
They shook hands at the net; no kisses for these two rivals who respect each other but share no friendship.
Seles expressed that respect in summing up what Graf's comeback represents.
"It's huge, absolutely huge," Seles said. "But I don't think, at least among the players, we ever counted Steffi out. All champions, like Steffi, Martina (Navratilova) you know they'll fight till the end in terms of comebacks, wanting to play great tennis again, work the hardest."
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