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SELES OVERPOWERS SABATINI IN SEMIS

Monica Seles overpowered Gabriela Sabatini with devastating ground strokes and won their French Open semifinal 6-4, 6-1 today, boosting her chances of defending her title and No. 1 ranking.

Sabatini, the No. 3 seed and the hottest player on the women's tour, held off the top-seeded Seles with an array of deft drop shots through eight games of the first set.But after a 90-minute rain delay, which began with the first set knotted at 4-4, Sabatini ran out of answers and won only won more game. The second set took only 28 minutes.

"It was a very tough first set," Seles said. "I told myself I have to go for it. I can't play too safely, because she's not going to make too many mistakes."

Seles repeatedly won points with her powerful two-handed backhand, and Sabatini appeared disheartened when a couple of close line calls went against her. On match point, as on several earlier points, one of her shots landed just out.

In the finals Saturday, Seles will play the winner of today's second semifinal, matching second seed Steffi Graf against No. 4 seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Both are former French Open champions, and Graf could take over the No. 1 ranking with a championship.

The first set was interrupted twice by rain, first for 17 minutes with Seles leading 3-2, followed by the longer delay at 4-4.

Seles said she ate, listened to her Walkman and played video games to relax during the wait.

"The pressure was very high, and I told myself to stay relaxed," she said. "I wasn't feeling tight when I went back out on the court."

Both players appeared to be playing well after the second delay, but Sabatini, after saving two set points on her service in the 10th game, hit a ground stroke that landed close to the baseline. The line judge called it out, then walked over and verified the call after Sabatini expressed doubt.

It was Seles' fourth victory in six career matches with Sabatini, and second in three encounters this year.

The men's semifinals are scheduled for Friday. Three of the players are seeking the glory of a first Grand Slam title. The fourth, Boris Becker, has his own powerful incentive - a return to the No. 1 world ranking.

Becker, winner of every Grand Slam event except this one, will replace Stefan Edberg as No. 1 if he beats Andre Agassi in a semifinal matching two of the hardest hitters in tennis.

The other semifinal also pairs a German and an American 12th-seeded Michael Stich against ninth-seeded Jim Courier, who upset Edberg on Wednesday.

Michael Chang, a loser to Becker in the quarterfinals, expects a bruising battle with Agassi.

"I'm not making any predictions." Chang said. "I'll just watch them slug it out."

Becker, despite years of success dating back to his first Wimbledon title in 1985, has held the No. 1 spot in the ATP computer ranking for only a three-week period after his Australian Open championship in January.

Edberg recaptured the top spot after a thigh injury forced Becker to default a semifinal match in Brussels, Belgium.

Agassi reached the finals of two Grand Slam tournaments last year, including the French Open, but has yet to capture a title. He has won the last three of his six career matches with Becker.

"Andre plays faster, closer to the line and usually hits harder than his opponent," Becker said. "But I hit hard as well."

Courier, 20, and Stich, 22, had never before reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, let alone the semifinals.