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Seles and Graf Breeze Toward a Showdown

And with Seles back, anticipation has returned to women's tennis

WITH all the drama of fairy-tale endings - and beginnings - the women's singles matches at the United States Open are entering the second and final week of fierce competition here.

Monica Seles's return to play after a two-year absence is by far the biggest event for the women's game. Her hiatus, after being stabbed by a fan who said he wanted Steffi Graf to be No. 1, created a vacuum in women's tennis. Seles left the tour in 1993 as the world's No. 1 player, having captured eight Grand Slam titles by age 19. No one could come close to beating Graf after Seles's departure, except maybe Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

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But Sanchez Vicario, the No. 2 seed here, fell to Mary Joe Fernandez in an upset match on the Stadium Court Sunday. Fernandez wasn't expected to get far in the tournament because of health problems. But she came back from one set behind to knock out Sanchez Vicario, the defending US Open champion (1-6, 6-4, 6-4).

After a solid week of tennis, Graf and Seles appear to be heading for a final confrontation. Both are rolling over opponents with ease. But the attention is squarely on Seles. She hasn't lost more than four games and her matches haven't lasted over an hour.

Unlike Graf, she seems to be having a good time. She's a huge hit with the fans here: Every time she enters the stadium, she receives a standing ovation. Before her Saturday match with Yone Kamio, no fewer than 25 photographers and two TV cameramen waited for her to walk onto the court. (Only a dozen photographers were present for Andre Agassi's entrance that afternoon.)

Between her second- and third-round matches, Seles had two days off and spent them in New York. On Wednesday evening, she joined a friend for shopping and dinner at a Manhattan department store. After her meal, a fan approached Seles for an autograph. Soon, everyone in the restaurant was applauding.

''That was the kind of thing that stays with you,'' Seles said, giggling effusively, after Saturday's match. ''I never thought I would go to New York and get all these people just walking down the street, stopping me, or saying things to me.... To me, that is the biggest surprise of all.''

Graf, the owner of 16 Grand Slam titles, says she likes having the attention showered on Seles, as it takes some of the pressure off her. Graf has had some troubling times. Her father - also her mentor and coach - is in jail on tax-evasion charges. Now the German authorities are reportedly investigating Steffi as well. She's also had health problems.

That doesn't leave Graf with much to smile about. But during her third-round match against Nathalie Tauziat, Graf hit a topspin lob that brought a rare smile to her face. When asked about it after the match, she said, ''I think it takes more of a good shot for me to smile. I think it is harder to make me smile, if that is what you are getting at.''

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Other women have had lots to smile about. Fernandez, who defeated Sanchez Vicario, meets the 1990 Open winner Gabriela Sabatini (seeded No. 9) in a quarterfinal match today.

On Sunday, Sabatini beat the youngest player entered in the tournament, Czech-born Martina Hingis. The 14-year-old Martina, now living in Switzerland, is the newest Wunderkind turned pro. Her poise, solid ground strokes, and fluid movement are being applauded by the more senior players on the tour.

But comparisons to Jennifer Capriati are also being made. Capriati turned pro at 14, but couldn't deal with the pressure and dropped off the tour a couple of years later.

Hingis does not like the comparison. Speaking through a translator after beating No. 8 seed Magdalena Maleeva on Wednesday, Hingis said, ''There just hasn't been the same kind of theater around me'' as there was around Capriati.

Hingis travels only with her mother-coach. They keep a low profile, but did drop in on the Seles-Kamio match on Saturday. Hingis, hair in a ponytail and wearing warmups, attentively watched the action. In all three of her appearances here, Hingis looked very relaxed. Former players and CBS commentators Mary Carillo and Martina Navratilova say she plays a well-thought-out game. Both had reservations about her turning pro so early, but noted that several others who had turned pro at 14 are playing well, including Graf, Fernandez, and Sabatini.

In another, happier ending, an unseeded young player from Michigan, Amy Frazier, knocked out Mary Pierce (No. 6), on Friday. Frazier continued her march on Sunday, beating Natasha Zvereva (No. 12).

After winning the Australian Open this year, Pierce hasn't made it to the quarterfinals in the other three Grand Slam events. She has, however, had more success playing mixed doubles. She's paired with Luke Jensen of the notorious rock-and-roll Jensen brothers. Pierce is enjoying herself here: She and Jensen butt hips and slap high fives after almost every point they score, as the crowd noisily cheers them on.

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