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Graf's victory not so easy

In this age of Monica-less tennis, Saturday was probably about as close as you will get to seeing Steffi Graf on the wrong side of the score.

She was swearing in German, serving "awful" and ripping herself afterwards. Of course, she also was securing her place in today's Virginia Slims of Florida final, beating Helena Sukova 7-5, 6-4 for the 21st straight time, seemingly in spite of herself.

In the 2 p.m. championship match today, the top-seeded Graf faces second seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who abruptly ended the dream run of 18-year-old Chanda Rubin 6-2, 6-3 in the other semifinal.

It is Graf's third consecutive trip to the final at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, but she wasn't exactly popping open champagne bottles Saturday.

"It was like should I smile now or not," she said. "I wasn't all that thrilled."

Neither was fifth-seeded Sukova, who was milepost No. 25 in Graf's unimpeded streak of consecutive match wins. A victory today will give the German her fifth title in a row and her 12th in her past 13 tournaments.

Considering that, it would have been quite an accomplishment if Sukova merely had won a set off Graf. Actually winning? Sukova hasn't done that since Graf was a 13-year-old rookie in 1983.

Say this for Sukova, though, she won nearly twice as many games (9) as any of Graf's three previous opponents here. In fact, Graf called it the most strenuous match she's had lately. It certainly topped Sukova's 6-3, 6-3 loss to Graf in last year's U.S. Open final.

Give Sukova credit, because unlike in previous encounters, she squeezed Graf early and often. She came out serving flames and followed with more heat at the net.

Graf spent a lot of time on her heels, startled by the 100-plus mph serves and well-angled volleys that at one juncture forced her to try a two-handed backhand.

"I was surprised at how strong she served and volleyed. She hardly missed one (volley)," Graf said. "She knew right where I was hitting my passing shots."

Trouble was, Sukova's aura of invincibility wore off as the match progressed. At set-point in the opening set, Sukova looked as stiff as a statue as Graf slapped a backhand by the 6-foot-2 Czech.

By the end of the second set, Sukova looked average. On match-point, she doubled-faulted, her eighth of the day.

After pushing her way to the net 35 times in the first set, Sukova only could get there 15 times in the second to win 10 points, which wasn't enough to derail Graf.

Against Sanchez Vicario, the 14th-seeded Rubin played the classic role of the overzealous kid trying to take out a tour heavyweight with one roundhouse right. Like the experienced, wise veteran she is, Sanchez Vicario wasn't fazed by Rubin's heavy swings, and merely let her over-eager opponent punch herself out of the tournament.

Rubin, who will climb to about No. 25 in the world rankings after starting the year 69th, can brag to her friends back home in Louisiana about the 17 winners she tagged off the second-ranked player in the world. But it's the 41 unforced errors that put Sanchez Vicario in the final.

"I know she is going to go for her shots. That's the way she plays," said Sanchez Vicario, who is 5-22 against Graf. "You just have to be patient because the harder you hit the ball, the harder she's going to hit it back."

With two of the WTA Tour's biggest stars, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, out indefinitely, Graf said the women's circuit could use a No. 1 versus No. 2 clash.

"I think any tournament that has the best players is needed right now," said Graf, who whipped Sanchez Vicario 6-0, 6-2 two months ago in the Australian Open final and 6-4, 6-3 here a year ago. "Of course, having No. 1 against No. 2 is good."

Sampras struggles

but defeats Edberg

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. _ Top-seeded Pete Sampras struggled for the first time this week before beating No. 3 Stefan Edberg of Sweden 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in a semifinal match of the Champions Cup.

Sampras, ranked No. 1 in the world, will meet 10th-seeded Petr Korda of the Czech Republic in today's final at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort. Korda advanced by beating unseeded Aaron Krickstein 6-4, 6-4.

Sampras last faced Korda in November, when he lost to the Czech player in five sets. Sampras has a 7-4 record against Korda, who is ranked 14th in the world.

Sampras and Edberg have an almost identical style of serve-and-volley play, and their match, which lasted 1 hour and 55 minutes, came down to Edberg's missing two volleys in the final game.

Sampras, a Tampa resident, took a 4-1 lead in winning the first set, but Edberg used a service break in the sixth game of the second set to even the match.

Both players held serve through the first nine games of the final set before Sampras broke Edberg's service to win the match.

Korda broke service in the third game of each set against Krickstein _ the only breaks of their 66-minute match.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.