Tennis: Matter-of-fact Seles puts her final task into perspective

John Roberts reports on how the former world No 1 has battled against adversity
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The Independent Online
EXEMPLIFYING the admirable composure which has marked her progress to this afternoon's French Open women's singles final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Monica Seles put the event into perspective.

"I do feel happy," she said. "It's really great. But I've tried to keep a sense of balance if I win or lose. Once I leave the site, it's not going to make a difference in my life. I'm still going to be missing people that I lost this year and last year."

The words were spoken almost matter-of-factly by an athlete who has spent the past five years coming to terms with the harsher aspects of celebrity and the family heartaches that are common to all.

After the death of her father and coach, Karolj, only 12 days before the tournament started, today's activity represents a welcome diversion. It may be one of the biggest events on the calendar, but it is only a tennis match for all that.

"I'm fighting for every single point," she said. "I'm not going to give a free point. If someone is going to beat me, they'll have to beat me because they're better. But I have my family and I have my really good friends, who have always been there. They will love me if I'm 100th in the world or No 1 in the world.

"I don't have those... I don't know if you call them insecurities, but some players feel if they're not doing well, people will not like them, and so on. To me it doesn't matter. I'm going to be determined, because I know what I want out of my life for the next few years."

Seles's stunning semi-final victory against Martina Hingis, which ended the 17-year-old Swiss world No 1's prospects of completing a set of the four Grand Slam titles this year, prompted much trumpting that the real Seles was back - the one who dominated before being stabbed by a spectator in 1993.

"I don't think the real Monica ever left," she responded. "I just think that when there's so many things going on outside your life, it's very difficult. I mean, I'm not a computer, able to keep my mind from thinking about life and issues and then go on a tennis court and be really excited about hitting a ball, or to be consistently training four hours every day, six days a week, which is what I used to do. Sometimes I was hitting two hours every other day, and some weeks I couldn't even go to hit because I was just so sad.

"So I had to realise, if you want to be top in your sport you have to priortise. I did that when I was No 1, Martina does that, Steffi [Graf], everybody. I tried to simplify my life as best I could.

"It's hard to say the real Monica or not the real Monica. I was the same as I was before. But I think probably mentally it was a lot tougher to concentrate. Maybe now it's a little bit easier in some ways. But it's not the same as it was before the stabbing. It never will be, and I don't want it to be."

Seles has won 14 of her 16 previous matches against Sanchez Vicario, including a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the Spanish retriever in 1991, the second of her three consecutive French Open titles. The last of Seles's nine Grand Slam titles was won at the 1996 Australian Open with a straight sets victory against the German Anke Huber in the final. Sanchez Vicario, who defeated Graf in the 1989 final at Roland Garros, and Mary Pierce in 1994, can be one of the most difficult opponents to subdue, as she demonstrated against Graf in the 1995 Wimbledon final, losing again to the German in the 1996 final.

It has taken the 26-year-old Spaniard time to find find form this year, her progress having been hampered by injuries to a leg and wrist. "It's going to be a tough match for me in the final," she said. "But, you know, I will be ready to play."

The 24-year-old Seles expects nothing less. "I lost the last time I played Arantxa, in New York in December," she said, "but it's a new match. I'm just going to go out there, do what I can control, and play the best tennis that I can. Arantxa is a great fighter, so I'm just so happy that she's in the final."

In view of all the fuss surrounding the rising generation, we trust that today's finalists will pardon the observation that they have become players of a certain age. Not to suggest that we are about to see Mavis Wilton versus Hilda Ogden.