Ten years ago Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver took on Vitas Gerulaitis and Bobby Riggs in a doubles match there that was nine parts gimmickry to one part gender politics. When the same New Jersey venue plays host to Monica Seles on her comeback against Nav- ratilova next Saturday, the mixture of hype and human drama, sport and showbiz, money and media circus will be similarly unclassifiable.
Genuine competition will certainly come into it, but for the 9,000 people expected at courtside, and the millions around the world who will watch on television, much of the fascination will lie elsewhere. How will Seles handle herself in her first match - albeit an exhibition - since a knife- wielding madman put her out of the game two years and three months ago? How will the public respond to her? Will her groundstrokes still pulverise? Will her hard edges have been softened? Will the grunt have gone?
One thing is certain: there has never been a sporting absence like this one. As Shriver said of the tortuous process by which Seles was finally given a joint world No1 ranking last week, "It's not like you look it up in the rule book and find '8-iv, No1 player stabbed on court, out for two years'. Right, let's see what it says." Everyone connected with the Seles affair has been working in the dark. But that has been as nothing to the depths of blackness into which Seles herself was plunged that spring afternoon in Hamburg as she sat wiping the sweat from her racket handle.
The Yugoslavian-born American was on course to becoming perhaps the greatest woman player ever. She was only 19, but of the 14 Grand Slam tournaments she had entered she had already won eight. At the same stage of their careers, Navratilova had not won any Grand Slams, Chris Evert had won five, and Steffi Graf one. The Seles era was stretching so far into the distance that it felt as if an entire generation of players might as well pack up and retreat to the locker-room to wait for the next millennium.
But the one who had to disappear was Seles - into a privacy so total, so mysterious and so tantalising that as the months turned into years and reports of a comeback began to carry no more weight than a Gabriela Sabatini second serve, tennis wondered whether this unique talent would ever be seen again.
Nobody doubted the degree of trauma Seles had suffered. Such an attack - carried out by a German fan of Graf who saw Seles as a threat to his idol - was beyond anyone's worst nightmare. But Seles was a person apart even before it happened. She could be brittle and perverse. Her incessant, airy chatter and the giggle that went with it got on people's nerves. Her last-minute withdrawal from the 1991 Wimbledon and subsequent reluctance to explain it was, in the eyes of many of her fellow-pros, merely the most flagrant example of the drama queen aspect to her personality.
She acquired a reputation for trying to upstage her rivals, and it remains intact after she made one of her rare public appearances on the same day that the women's final was taking place at this year's Wimbledon. At the US Open of 1991, Gigi Fernandez came right out with it: "I don't think she is very popular in the locker-room, but she never was." The aftermath of the stabbing provided more evidence of the divide between Seles and the rest.
Few players made much effort to contact her, and when they did, she was elusive. Shriver said: "I've only had one conversation with her and it went really well until somebody asked me if I'd spoken to her. I made reference that I had and evidently said one or two things that were misinterpreted and I got in a heap of trouble. Me and my big mouth. But I really didn't say much. I think it just shows how sensitive it all is when somebody's been attacked like this and how anyone around her has to tread on eggshells, to the point where it becomes very difficult to walk." Then there was the recent muttering among the players about Seles's ranking and how it might affect their positions.
For five months after the attack Seles underwent a rehabilitation programme at a clinic in Colorado. The knife-wound, two inches deep, just below her left shoulder-blade, began to heal. Then, at the start of the US Open in August 1993, she gave a press conference, her first public appearance since Hamburg, before retreating to the newly acquired family home in Sarasota, Florida, complete with basketball court and two tennis courts. That winter, after she had got back into training, it looked as if Seles might re-emerge. She indicated that she was considering playing in the Australian Open in January 1994. But it was an illusion. Mentally, she was still in turmoil. Meanwhile, another shadow loomed over family life: Seles's father Karoly, also her coach, was suffering from cancer.
For most of last year Seles was a forgotten figure. Her treatment - now mainly psychological - continued. She took French lessons and learned to play the guitar. As injury plagued Graf, Navratilova retired, and Jennifer Capriati turned up in police custody, Seles became just another lurid element in the doom and gloom of the women's game.
In the end, it was Navratilova who was instrumental in coaxing her back. As president of the Women's Tennis Association - which badly wanted an active Seles if the sport was to shed its increasingly uncompetitive image - she turned this task into a personal crusade. It began at the end of 1994 when she went to Sarasota and got Seles out on the court. "It was so much fun," Seles recalled last week. "I kind of missed that feeling. She asked me [about making a comeback] and I said I didn't know. After she left, I thought a lot about it and different thoughts were running through my mind. I was thinking that I needed to make a decision. For me to make the next step, it was going to take me to go to one level and put this behind me and put it in a box. I was just going to try to do it."
With her brother Zoltan acting as hitting partner, Seles has since stepped up her training, and is now working towards next month's US Open and at least one tournament before it. Having grown an inch and a half, to 5ft 11in, during her lay-off, she is hoping her serve will have improved. That is not all. "My volleys should be better, especially with Martina's help," she said. "And I'll be able to use them in a pressure situation, and I'll have the confidence to go to the net."
Shriver views Seles's chances of returning to her best with qualified optimism. "It wasn't as if she constructed points or had any fancy formula," she said. "She would serve the ball and then knock the heck out of it both sides. And she was incredibly tough. There's a lot about her game that should make it easier for her than if it had been Navratilova, say, with her complicated game. Monica really has one dimension to worry about. Now, what the mind does and how much that lets her be her old self, those are questions that nobody can answer." Navratilova thinks she knows. "She is going to be awesome," she said. And at 21, with Graf's days apparently numbered, Seles still has scope to rewrite the record books.
A lot will be revealed on Saturday. Which was why Seles's comeback match was always going to be a hot property, stage-managed to the advantage of all concerned. Rich Rose, the president of Caesars World Sports, realised this as long as two years ago, when he first told the International Management Group, agents to both Navratilova and Seles, that his organisation would be keen to promote it. "When she decided to do it, six or seven weeks ago, IMG said, 'Are you still interested?' " Rose explained last week. "We certainly were."
Then there was the television deal. CBS won the bidding, at an estimated cost of $500,000, to include an exclusive interview with Seles. And the match had to be guaranteed to go ahead, which explains why, in spite of it being high summer, it is happening indoors. Rain was not a risk anyone could run.
The choice of opponent is equally judicious. Both women have dismissed John McEnroe's suggestion that it would be arranged for Navratilova to lose the match, but as Shriver said, "It's a very appropriate first step. It would be tough to go out and play a peer, someone else who is at the top. But Martina is someone she knows well and has a good rapport with and who will basically try to help." Seles deserves all of that. The rest is up to her.Reuse content