Tennis: New stars remind Seles of her own precocity

Monica Seles believes that women's tennis is now more friendly. John Roberts talks to an acute observer of the new generation
Click to follow
DURING the French Open this week, Monica Seles made the observation that the current generation of teenage players appear to be more kindly disposed to each other than she remembered when arriving on the professional scene, aged 15.

"I think the circuit is really nice right now," Seles said after her much admired return to the sport only 12 days after the death of her father and coach, Karolj. "I think the girls are are very nice. Obviously, I'm more mature, too, so I look at a lot of things differently.''

It is hard to believe that nine years have elapsed since a precocious Seles handed flowers to spectators on all sides of a court at Roland Garros while Zina Garrison waited impatiently at the net to toss for the choice of ends. Seles even offered a bloom to her opponent, who was not amused.

After winning one of her early events on the WTA Tour, Seles went to the tournament office and thanked the staff for their help. When she did not leave, she was asked, "Are you waiting for your father, Monica?" "No," she replied, "I'm waiting for my cheque.''

Influenced by the court couturier Ted Tinling's fond memories of Suzanne Lenglen, the French tennis icon, Seles charmingly dressed up in 1930s style for her press conference after winning the Australian Open. On another occasion her father had to remind her that she was too young to buy a Lamborghini.

Depending on your point of view, the skittish Seles was either a bundle of fun or gruntingly, irritating. Her talent was never in doubt. Asked in 1990, after winning her first Grand Slam title at the French Open, if success was likely to change her, she replied, "No, I'll just stay the same little old me.''

Unfortunately, circumstances conspired against her. The 24-year-old Seles has experienced little other than anguish since she was stabbed in the back by a deranged Steffi Graf obsessive at the age of 19, by which time she had won eight Grand Slam titles and had overtaken Graf as the world No 1.

During her struggle to regain fitness and form since making a comeback in 1995, constantly worrying about her father's failing health, Seles has seen the emergence of an exciting new class of young players led by Martina Hingis, the 17-year-old world No 1 and champion of Wimbledon, the United States Open and the Australian Open. Hingis's reign is under threat from the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, the Russian Anna Kournikova, and Mirjana Lucic, of Croatia - threat as in rivalry, that is.

"It's always tough when you're the No 1 player at a young age," Seles said. "You see that with the new youngsters. Some of them are not the most liked in the locker room. That's just normal. But I think most of the players who I've talked to respect me. Very few people have been off the tour for a long time and come back and done well. You're just hanging in there. All of us have personal or family problems, the kind of things all the players go through at some at some point in their career. It was really nice to get to share these with some of them.

"I just think the players right now are much more well-rounded than when I first came on the tour. Then it was so different, because most of the people were all 15 years older than I was. You don't have much in common. There was really just Jennifer [Capriati] and myself, and before that [Gabriela] Sabatini and Steffi. Now there are five of them.''

Seles does not pretend that everything can be sweetness at the highest level of such a competitive and lucrative business. "I can't really say. Martina [Hingis], Anna, Venus and Mirjana have been tremendous towards me. They said some wonderful things. I think towards each other it's a little bit different.

"When you look back at Steffi, Steffi had the same arrogance on the court when she was the top player, and Martina [Navratilova], and Chrissie [Evert]. I think when you're No 1, you have that a little bit.

"What I love about [the new group] is they're very focused and really have strong determination. This might change once you're out of your teenage years. So many things can happen. If they keep going, I really hope that each one of them is going to be No 1 at some stage in their careers. I really believe each one deserves it from what I've seen up to this point."