IN the absence of Monica Seles, who has not played on the tennis circuit since being stabbed at the Citizen Cup in Hamburg, Germany, in May, Steffi Graf has had a field day. Until Sunday, that is: In a tuneup for this week's Virginia Slims Championships in New York, Graf was upset by Spain's Conchita Martinez in straight sets in the finals of the Philadelphia tour stop.
Thus ended a 44-match victory streak that dated back to May 2. Her Philadelphia outing was Graf's first since foot surgery last month, and though she is top-seeded at New York this week, she suddenly is without of her aura of invincibility.
One player who entered the week hoping to capitalize was seven-time champion Martina Navratilova, who remains light years ahead of Graf in total match victories and is third-seeded in the 16-player New York field. Navratilova has 1,404 career wins; Graf, her closest active rival, 657.
Martina cut her professional teeth playing against the likes of Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong in the 1970s and is still highly competitive today. In fact, she picked up her 166th tour title two weeks ago in Oakland, Calif. Even so, she sounds far less intense than many may remember her being. ``Everyone is so serious out there on the court,'' she said after her Oakland win. ``Relax, it's just a game,'' she admonished her rivals. Baseball's most valuable players
Barry Bonds made headlines and history last week by collecting the National League's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for the third time in four years. This gives the San Francisco outfielder another, unwanted distinction: greatest player never to appear in the World Series. If there is an echo to his frustrations, it is in the basketball career of Wilt Chamberlain, who made it to the National Basketball Association (NBA) finals only once in the four seasons he was the league's MVP. Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics derailed Wilt's team - the Philadelphia 76ers - in the 1960, '66, and '68 Eastern division finals. Bonds's MVP counterpart this year is first baseman Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, who became the eighth unanimous pick for the American League award. The statistical lines on the two MVPs - batting average, home runs, and runs batted in - is very similar: Bonds (.336, 46, 123) and Thomas (.317, 41, 128). Bombs away in the NBA
Just how far NBA thinking has come since the adoption of the three-point basket in 1979 was clearly evident the other night in Seattle, when Sam Perkins was 7-for-7 from three-point land.
That would be a feat for even the most specialized shooting guard who may have developed the outside shot in lieu of inside scoring potential. But the 6 ft., 9 in. Perkins is at least nominally the SuperSonics' center. The thought of anyone so tall shooting from beyond the 23 ft., 9 in. arc a decade ago would have been grounds for immediate benching. Touching other bases
* Now that the 1993-94 NBA season is under way, Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone can focus more on his prosaic profession. Malone, a member of the '92 Olympic Dream Team, is not really bored by basketball, it's just that he's discovered the thrills of flying in a fighter plane. Over the summer, he hitched a ride in an Air Force F-16 jet. ``Nothing in the world can compare to flying in an F-16,'' Malone said of an hour spent experiencing G forces, barrel rolls, and sharp climbs. ``Basketball doesn't even compare to this. I should've been a pilot.''
* Under new coach Bill Parcells (he of the Super Bowl credentials), the New England Patriots still haven't shaken off their historical penchant for infuriating results. They often create the scent of victory before going up in smoke. After nine weeks (they had Sunday off), the Patriots are the best 1-8 team in the National Football League. But that's small consolation for a team that has lost five games by a combined 13 points and dropped two overtime decisions, both to good teams, Buffalo and Detroit. They also have twice lost to the Seattle Seahawks, a team led by the very quarterback (Notre Dame's Rick Mirer) New England passed over in last spring's draft - which isn't to say the Patriots are unhappy with Drew Bledsoe, who was their top draft pick.