MONICA Seles, the top seed, produced one of the great comebacks of her career so far to land a place in her fourth Australian Open final when she beat American teenager Chanda Rubin in three sets at Flinders Park yesterday.
Seles, whose return to the sport after having been stabbed in Hamburg in 1993 has revitalised the women's game, now faces No.8 seed Anke Huber after the German reached her first Grand Slam final with a see-saw, three-set success against South Africa's Amanda Coetzer.
The 22-year-old Seles, strong favourite to win her ninth major title in the absence of the injured Steffi Graf, came back from 5-2 down in the third set to win an epic semi-final 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 against the talented Rubin, who was facing her Yugoslav-born compatriot for the first time.
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Seles, the joint world No.1 who has battled niggling injuries throughout the tournament, had to dig deep to level the match in the second set against an inspired Rubin after having lost the first on a tie-break.
The young American, who had beaten world No.3 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in a three-and-a-half hour quarter-final, followed the same do-or-die approach, and at 5-2 in the deciding set, the Centre Court crowd scented an historic victory.
However, as so often happens with champions, Seles - never beaten in Australia in 31 outings, 27 of them at the Australian Open - had other ideas. She held serve and at 5-3 with Rubin going for an upset, and she finally cracked her pounding serve for the first time in the set and then broke again to set up a remarkable victory and bring the crowd to its feet.
Seles, who won the Open three years in succession before her stabbing, said she felt lucky to have survived to the final. ``I just can't believe it because at 5-2 I was pretty sure it was goodbye,'' said Seles.
Rubin, who won a long standing ovation for her victory over Sanchez Vicario, said she tried to dominate Seles by going for her shots. ``I tried to stay aggressive and get in a little bit . . . and I think I did that pretty well. I gave myself chances but I didn't close it out.''
Seles said she hurt her left shoulder lifting weights, forcing her to pull back on her serve.
Injury-plagued since her comeback in August, Seles said the shoulder was so stiff on Wednesday she could hardly lift it in practice, but she said it was much better when warmed up and felt 100% fit going into the match.
Seles, who has beaten Huber twice since coming back from her 28-month lay-off, predicted a hard-hitting final tomorrow.
Huber's first match against Coetzer, though without the drama of the Seles game, gave the tournament a new twist, with the 21-year-old German making it into a Grand Slam final at the twenty-fourth attempt.
``It's a big surprise, I didn't expect it . . . it's difficult to explain (how I feel),'' an overwhelmed Huber said after her 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
The German lived dangerously against the No.16 seed. After having lost the first set, she changed tactics and slowed down the pace of the match against the South African, who was chasing down everything.
``I tried to hit too many winners . . . in the second set I played a little bit smarter, some more topspins, some high balls, I changed the rhythm a little bit and that was the important thing,'' Huber said, who may, at last, have emerged from Graf's shadow.
``I am very happy,'' she said. ``For me, it's unbelievable, just great.''
After two years in decline, things began to turn around for Huber last year, after Mary Pierce had beaten her in straight sets in this event.
Her coach at the time - Boris Breskvar, the man who discovered Boris Becker - was disappointed with her performance and criticized Huber in German newspapers.
Stung, she broke with him and signed Zoltan Kuharsky as her new coach, and almost immediately began playing better, culminating with yesterday's victory.
``People have told me to have fun playing tennis, and I think that has been important.''