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Original Issue

Down and Dirty

In a French Open that required more grit than grace, Monica Seles outlasted Steffi Graf to win her third consecutive Grand Slam title

A certain lack of imagination was required to win the French Open. It was a tournament of punches and puddles. You had to crank your spirits up and push your body through the soggy days. In the end Monica Seles, the 18-year-old Yugoslav with the screech and the two-fisted swing from both sides, and Jim Courier, the aggressively dull redhead from tiny Dade City, Fla., both successfully defended their titles by displaying perhaps the most important quality they share: the vastly underrated ability to simply not get beat.

Courier's toughest opponent was a head cold. He lost only one set in seven matches and defeated seventh-seeded Petr Korda of Czechoslovakia 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 in a men's final on Sunday that was purely ceremonial. Upon clinching his victory, Courier, exulting in a third Grand Slam title at 21, paid tribute to Johnny Carson, who was seated courtside, by imitating Carson's Tonight Show golf swing and to the crowd by delivering a gracious speech partly in French.

As for Seles, only one conclusion could be reached after watching her win her sixth Grand Slam title with a desperately fought 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 victory over second-ranked Steffi Graf: No one in the game is a more tenacious competitor. Seles lost four match points with Graf serving at 5-3 in that epic third set, and a full hour would pass before she got another. Graf led 6-5 and 7-6 and then broke serve to level the score at 8-8 before Seles prevailed on match point number 6. Well, I did it, she thought as she jogged to the net to shake Graf's hand, too exhausted to manage more than a smile after playing for two hours and 43 minutes. "That's the hardest I've ever had to work for a Grand Slam title," said Seles, who is the first woman to win three straight French championships since Hilde Sperling did so between 1935 and '37.

Seles's ability to overcome deficits was remarkable throughout the tournament. In the fourth round 150th-ranked Akiko Kijimuta of Japan led Seles 4-1 in the third set before Seles ran off five consecutive games and wrested a 6-1, 3-6, 6-4 victory in the mud and rain. In the semifinals Seles trailed third-seeded Gabriela Sabatini 4-2 in the final set. Sabatini, who won only two points in the next three games, still doesn't know how Seles recovered. "I thought she was tired, and all of a sudden she was stronger," said Sabatini after falling 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. "I don't know where she got the power."

Seles was so worn out by her exertions that she could barely celebrate after her triumph in Saturday's final, so she simply dined with her family in their Paris hotel. Still, ever the aspiring starlet, Seles had her hair and makeup done before going down to dinner.

Seles had her hair done—or, rather, undone—before the tournament, too. She likes to do something fun or silly before each Grand Slam event to release tension. And she has always wanted to try her talents in the entertainment field, so a friend in the music business in Paris arranged for her to cut a video. Seles wanted a new look for the taping and made an appointment at a salon. Trouble was, that salon, which had a blue door, was on the same block as another salon with a blue door, and Seles went into the wrong one. Seles, whose native tongue is Hungarian and who speaks a little French, proceeded to hold a babbling conversation with a stylist who seemed quite agreeable. "Then things got a little confusing," said Seles. She later said she merely meant to have her hair darkened a little "to go with my eyes," which are blue-green. Instead, she ended up with tresses the color of soot. You half expected to see the dye running down her neck in the rain.

One can only tremble in anticipation of how she may prepare for Wimbledon, which begins on June 22. This much was known last week: Seles planned to practice on grass at Scotland's famed Glen-eagles golf resort and to attend Ascot on June 16. "I think it's kind of good to take off and do something different," she said. "There's so much pressure in a Grand Slam tournament, and if you started thinking about it too soon, by the second week it would be too much."

The routine is working, because Seles has yet to lose a Grand Slam final. But she is not a dominating sort of champion. In Paris she won an event that figured to be a virtual toss-up among the top four seeds. In the two semifinal matches and the final, serve was broken a total of 39 times. Graf, who missed the Australian Open in January with German measles, has rarely wanted to win a tournament as badly as she wanted to win Roland Garros this year. In the 1991 French Open, Arantxa Sànchez Vicario routed Graf 6-0, 6-2 in the semis, but in their semi last Thursday, Graf turned around what started out to be an eerie replay, winning 0-6, 6-2, 6-2.

If the final isn't remembered as a classic, the reason will be Graf's numerous unforced errors. She committed 66 to Seles's 30. Still, she provided some clues as to how to play Seles. Pester her with chips and slices. Drop-shot her to bring her to net, where she is uncomfortable. Attack her weak serve.

But what do you do about Seles's steely resolve? It's a quality a couple of unhappy-looking teenagers could use more of. Mary Pierce, 17, and Jennifer Capriati, 16, met, fittingly, in the round of 16. It seemed as if more eyes were on their overbearing fathers, Jim Pierce and Stefano Capriati, as they sat hunched in the players' box, than on Jennifer, who was seeded fifth, and No. 13 Mary. Jennifer and Mary were acquaintances in the junior ranks, but their paths have diverged. While Jennifer became the darling of the U.S. Tennis Association, Jim Pierce feuded with the USTA and finally bolted to France with his family, settling near Nice and using the French citizenship of his wife, Yannick, to get Mary into the French national program.

Pierce, openly resentful of both the USTA and the Capriatis, worked himself into a lather as Mary and Jennifer worked their way through the draw. He said he slugged two spectators who heckled him during one of Mary's mixed doubles matches and had to be shushed by her during her third-round win over Andrea Strnadova. Pierce's anticipation was heightened by the fact that he saw financial potential in a victory over Jennifer. He told Mary that if she won, she should unpin and shake out her long blonde hair, in hopes of landing a lucrative shampoo deal. However, after taking a 3-1 lead in the first set, Mary began spraying balls all around the stadium, and Jennifer went on to win 6-4, 6-3. "She didn't do what I told her to," said Pierce, who, for a change, did nothing to embarrass his daughter during the match. He and Stefano even shook hands when it was over.

That match was Jennifer's lone bright moment in Paris, for a day later she faced Seles. A lusterless Jennifer committed 37 unforced errors and lost 6-2, 6-2. "Everything felt heavy and slow," she said.

Like Pierce and Capriati, Seles is coached by her father. Seles, however, continues to thrive even when it seems she should be most tired. That may be because on those mornings when she wakes up and doesn't want to practice with her dad, Karolj, she doesn't. "If I don't want to, I don't," she says. "He's never said, 'You've got to put in those four hours.' "

Moreover, Seles does not appear to be fit, her strokes are awkward, and nothing about her movement is graceful. She doesn't train off the court, although she has recently begun to do some long-distance running with Karolj. "We put in a lot of miles at a slow pace," she says.

With those habits, how many more times will she pull out tournaments like this one? She clearly was tired during the final. On the other hand, Seles won a five-set, three-hour-and-47-minute match against Sabatini in the finals of the 1990 Virginia Slims Championships. One secret to Seles may be that she thrives on the stage. "I love it," she said. "I love the stadium. I love the crowd."

As does Courier. Ninety-eight of the Top 100 men entered the French Open, but from the beginning the tournament was Courier's to lose. As the competition wore on, his primary threats looked to be 11th-seeded Andre Agassi, who had reached the final the past two years; third-seeded Pete Sampras, who for the first time looked comfortable on clay; and Henri Leconte, the French Davis Cup hero of last year. The three Americans eyed each other speculatively. All of France eyed Leconte.

En route to the semifinals, Leconte upset a succession of unsuspecting players, including Michael Stich, the defending Wimbledon champion and a semifinalist at Roland Garros last year. The 28-year-old Leconte made do with a huge serve and sleight-of-hand volleying. There was a time when he was regarded more with irritation than admiration by the French, especially after he collapsed against Mats Wilander in the 1988 French Open final. But Leconte got back into their good graces when he led France to a stunning upset of the U.S. in the final of the '91 Davis Cup competition.

Ranked No. 200 on the computer, Leconte considered turning down the offer of a wild-card place at Roland Garros: An early-round humiliation would jeopardize his newfound status as national hero. But Leconte played on a swell of emotion and became a factor in the tournament after he recovered from a two-set deficit to defeat Nicklas Kulti of Sweden in the quarterfinals.

However, while he was winning matches, Leconte was also admitting, "I am not very fit." The Kulti match sapped his shallow reserves. Korda's 6-2, 7-6, 6-3 victory two days later was so quick and overwhelming that there was no time for sorrow. Leconte just rejoiced that he had done his bit for his country once more. "I never dreamed that I could play like that again," he said.

If you were looking for someone to blame for the pothole that constituted the bottom half of the draw, that would be the unseeded Kulti, the 1989 world junior champion and a nettlesome presence throughout the fortnight. In the first round he reduced John McEnroe to a mere ornament, defeating him 6-2, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5. Then he reduced fifth-seeded Michael Chang, winner of the French Open in 1989, almost to tears. In the most captivating match of the tournament, Chang fought off eight match points before succumbing in a light rain by a score of 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6.

Also in the bottom half, second-seeded Stefan Edberg was a red herring. He tottered on the brink of elimination for two rounds before Andrei Cherkasov of Russia finished him off 6-4, 6-3, 7-6. Ivan Lendl, a three-time winner at Roland Garros but only the 10th seed this year, was gone by the second round.

Thus, by the quarterfinals Korda was the only seed left in the bottom half of the draw. A 24-year-old whose bristling blond hair makes him look like Snoopy's friend Woodstock and who ought to be nicknamed Rip because of his penchant for swinging away, he was a quirky but un-threatening foil for Courier. Indeed, he was overjoyed just to reach the final. Thoughts of winning did not intrude. "I can't explain everything, but I feel great," he said after defeating Leconte.

Agassi was delighted to reach the semis after a mediocre spring in which he dropped out of the Top 10 for the first time since 1988. His 7-6, 6-2, 6-1 quarterfinal defeat of Sampras came with surprising ease once he got out of the tight first set with a net-cord winner. But who, really, was Agassi kidding with his famously casual physical regimen? It was impossible not to contrast him with Courier, who after each match runs a couple of miles and then returns to the practice court to hit with his coach, Josè Higueras. As much as anyone, Higueras has given Courier the implacable on-court demeanor that has turned him from another hot flash into a stable champion. In the last 12 months, Courier has won two French Opens, reached the final of the U.S. Open and won the Australian Open. "There are two players on the court," says Higueras. "One hits the ball, and the other hits the ball back. You don't worry about what 50,000 people say. It's one-on-one."

Courier seems older than his 21 years. He is a coat-and-tie type whose aim is to become the ultimate professional. He is learning French, and he spoke it cheerfully to the ball boys at Roland Garros. When the Prince de Galles hotel offered him a complimentary two-bedroom suite for his stay in Paris, Courier turned it down. He asked for a conventional room and paid full price. "It's a matter of how you go about your business," he says.

A year ago Courier needed five sets to beat Agassi at Roland Garros. This year the difference between Courier and Agassi was the difference between the hardest-working man on the tennis tour and the laziest. Talent met industry and got its butt kicked. "I may not hit the tennis ball as clean as some, but I've got a lot of other talents," Courier said.

Chiefly, winning.



Seles (left), who's 6-0 in Grand Slam finals, and Graf dueled for nearly three hours before Seles prevailed on her sixth match point.



Graf ripped 23 forehand winners in the final, but she was done in by 66 unforced errors.



Seles's game face was framed by a radically darkened 'do.



"Heeeere's Jimmy!" After defending his title, Courier paid tribute to Carson (with wife Alexis and superagent Mark McCormack).



[See caption above.]