On the brink of dropping a set for the first time in her comeback, Monica Seles displayed the one trait that distinguishes her from all other players, that molded her into a champion, and that made her long absence so puzzling.
It was Seles’ utter refusal to be beaten, to give up under any circumstances, that marked her eight Grand Slam title runs more than her strokes or style or stamina. It was why those who knew her believed she would come back sooner from her stabbing.
And it was that toughness that was all the difference Wednesday between her and Jana Novotna.
Seles reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open with a 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 victory over Novotna that turned on four pivotal points at the end of the first set when Novotna served with a 6-5, 40-15 lead.
The way Seles played those points, the grit she showed while under pressure for the first time in 10 matches over two tournaments, may also be the determining factor when she plays Friday against Conchita Martinez, a 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 victory over Brenda Schultz-McCarthy.
In an even closer and much longer match, 1989 men’s champion Boris Becker reached the semifinals by surviving the longest duel of the tournament - 4 hours, 7 minutes - against Patrick McEnroe, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (7-3), 7-6 (8-6).
Becker, who closed the match with his 30th ace, will play defending champion Andre Agassi, a 6-4, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5 winner over Petr Korda. Agassi, who played indifferently in the third set, clawed back from two breaks down at 1-4 in the fourth, fought off two set-points at 4-5 and broke Korda again to score his 25th consecutive victory.
Becker, who beat Agassi in the Wimbledon semis, could use the time off until Saturday’s match after his long struggle with McEnroe.
“The fourth set was as tough a set as you can get,” Becker said. “It just didn’t seem to end. Something always would come up. Thank God, I kept my cool. I kept holding my serve, so at least I gave myself a chance every time. But it was very hard to stay calm out there.
“Unfortunately, I never had a chance to play John (McEnroe) here at the Open, but his younger brother gave me more than a handful.
“For McEnroe, the loss offered him an important lesson.
“When it gets to be crunch time against a guy like Becker,” he said, “you’ve got to really go for your shots and not hold anything back, not just hope he misses, because he is not going to miss.
“Seles learned that lesson long ago, and when it was time for her to go for broke on key points, she didn’t hesitate. Not so Novotna.
Novotna and “choke” have become synonymous in tennis, starting with the Wimbledon final in 1993 and continuing through the French Open this year.
“I thought Jana might choke,” Seles said. “I know she’s done it before, so I knew there was a chance.
“Novotna didn’t choke this time, didn’t panic and simply blow the match as she’s done before. But she witnessed, along with nearly 20,000 fans in the packed stadium in the heat of high noon, the way a true champion performs.
Going for her first set-point at 40-15, Novotna hit a hard, first serve that Seles ripped even harder with a forehand return down the line and into the corner for a winner.
“I was so mad at myself,” said Seles, trying to explain why she slugged that ball so hard and took such a chance on set-point. “I just went, wow, hit it.
“That wowed the crowd and Novotna, who disconsolately stared at the spot where the ball landed.
“That is where Monica really showed up,” Novotna said. “She didn’t worry about it at all, what the score was, and just went for her shots.
“Seles then upstaged that shot, ending a long rally by making a rare venture to the net and putting away her first volley with a deft forehand for deuce.
Novotna called that volley “very gutsy.” Seles described it simply as “very nice.”