Graf and; Seles renew their rivalry

The two women who have dominated tennis in the Nineties have rarely crossed swords at the sport's biggest championship. This year might be different.
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The abiding memory is of her silence. There was not a grunt, not even a peep. Monica Seles was subdued almost to the point of fading into the Centre Court backdrop as the steady thump of Steffi Graf's forehand winners beat out a rhythm on that sodden July afternoon in 1992. But, then, it always seems to rain on Seles's parade at Wimbledon.

Her appearances have been restricted to three. A veil was drawn over 1991, when Seles failed to present herself at the sport's most prestigious championships and neglected to give a reason why. The mystery was allowed to deepen for weeks before a leg injury was mentioned.

The world knows that she has been absent since 1992 as a consequence of the damage, chiefly psychological, inflicted by the knife-wielding Gunther Par- che, a Graf obsessive, who attacked Seles during a change-over when she was playing in Hamburg on 30 April 1993.

During her lengthy rehabilitation, in tho- se moments when she allowed herself to dwell on tennis, Seles would sometimes return in her thou- ghts to Wimbledon, where her performances had fallen short of her great achievements elsewhere.

In 1989, unsure of herself on the grass courts, she won only one game against Graf in the fourth round; in 1990, though improved on the surface, she lost to Zina Garrison in the quarter-finals, 9-7 in the final set; and in 1992, having advanced to the final, she managed to salvage only three games against a rampant Graf.

In the last instance, it might be argued, there were extenuating circumstances. What began as a media stunt, a "gruntometer" recording Seles's decibels, had serious overtones. The French player, Nathalie Tauziat, raised the matter of Seles's grunting after losing to her in the quarter-finals, and Martina Navratilova complained to the umpire about it during the semi- final.

Seles made a conscious effort to curb herself in the final. "I just thought hopefully I can start [not grunting] somewhere, so I started here," she said afterwards. The defeat, 6-2, 6-1, ended her 41-match winning streak in Grand Slam matches and was her first in seven Grand Slam finals.

Graf remembers that she dominated the final with comparative ease. "I played the best tennis, and she obviously didn't rise to the occasion," the champion said. "I don't think I could really have played a much better match. I didn't do anything spectacular, I just played solid throughout. Monica didn't get into the match at all. She didn't get a chance. I served too well, or she just didn't return as good. Her serve wasn't strong enough to put pressure on me."

"I never felt I was in the match," Seles recalls. "Steffi was just on top of me, by the score and in every single way. I'll try not to look back on the '92 final. Everything is brand new again this year, it's like a new start."

Seles, on her last visit to the All England Club four years ago, was a precocious 18. Today, at 22, she is in the process of piecing together her career.

Several factors impelled her to return to the WTA Tour last August. She wished to be remembered in terms more rounded than "the one who was stabbed", or "the one who grunted", or "the one who never played well at Wimbledon". Perhaps most of all, she missed the joy of doing what she did best.

"I am just happy that I'm playing again," she says. "The one thing I learned after Hamburg was never to be disappointed. You surely never know what's coming in your life. The good and the bad."

She is determined to maintain a sense of proportion, whatever befalls her. "It will be really important for me not to worry about what anybody is going to say - 'She can play on grass, she can't play on grass' - or about the grunting. I'm here to play some tennis and do the best job I can.

"It's important not to emphasise too much. When you want something so much, sometimes you want it too much. Then you just mentally and physically block yourself down. I think that's what happened once in a while with Lendl. I don't want that to happen with me. I'm treating it as any other Grand Slam. Even before, when I was kind of on automatic winning those Grand Slams, I would walk out on the court and I would not know if I would come off a winner or loser. That's the same theory I'm keeping now."

Having been the world No 1 at the time of the attack, Seles was given the dispensation of sharing the top ranking with Graf. She then discovered that she had something else in common with her German rival, an increasing susceptibility to injuries.

In Seles's case, the ailments could be traced, directly or indirectly, to the strenuous exercise which followed more than two years of comparative inactivity. "Your body goes from being an elite athlete to something different," she says. "It's going to take a while for it to go back."

While running to shed weight before making her comeback, Seles developed tendinitis in the left knee. The problem did not prevent her from sweeping through the Canadian Open without losing a set, nor from contesting a magnificent United States Open final, which Graf won, 7-6, 0-6, 6-3. But that was it for the year, a sprained ankle compounding the knee injury.

"From starting playing tennis, at age seven, to 30 April [1993], I had a schedule every day. For two and a half years, I had a totally different schedule. Then suddenly, in Toronto, I really went in full speed, no build- up. Then the US Open. It was all too much. I was too eager to do well. Things happened too fast."

Graf, whose chronic back problem has caused her most concern in recent years, missed the Australian Open in January after undergoing foot surgery. Seles won the tournament, but injured her left shoulder in the process and aggravated the condition - tendinitis and a small tear of the lining of the socket - when playing in Japan the following week.

The injury put Seles out of action until last month, when she tested the shoulder in Madrid, the week before the French Open. She withdrew from Spain after feeling a twinge, but advanced to the quarter-finals in Paris before losing to Jana Novotna.

"I don't think I lost because of my shoulder," Seles said. "I think it was a factor that I couldn't serve as many first serves in, and I didn't have the consistency. I think I'll have to serve better on grass. I'll have to go for aces and win some free points."

That is the priority now, but Seles knows that the shoulder may require surgery and hopes that she will at least be able to continue playing until after the US Open in September.

"We don't know one hundred per cent how the shoulder got injured," she says. "I thought that it was from not serving as much at one point in my life and then going back to serving a lot. From what the doctor said, it has nothing to do with me being laid off. He says I was probably put in a position while stretching and it might have just snapped. I always had an unstable shoulder. You can see when I walk, my shoulder is flexed forward."

While ensuring that the tension of the racket strings are adjusted to suit various weather conditions, which can affect the weight of the balls, Seles knows that only so much can be done to prevent the pain.

"If there comes a point when it hurts every time you're serving, you would say, 'Why are you doing it?' Some days it's better. But some days, when it's really bad, to carry on is totally against my theory that when you have a pain your body is telling you not to do it."

The 27-year-old Graf was pain-free, at least in the physical sense, until she aggravated an inflamed tendon in her left knee while playing in an exhibition match in Prague 10 days ago. The injury was described as minor, and there have been no twinges lately in her troublesome back. However, she is not without stress away from the tennis court.

Her father, Peter, has been in prison for almost a year, accused of evading millions of marks in tax on his daughter's earnings. Steffi welcomes every opportunity to play a tournament as a relief from the continuing investigation into her finances. "When I get home I have to sit down with lawyers or tax people," she said, "so I am always happy to come to a tournament, where I know I'll get a chance to do something for myself."

She is delighted that Seles is here. "I think it will probably make my life easier because the attention will be more on her, and, anyway, I've always preferred that," she says. "And for the tournament itself, it's such a big boost, and very important for all of us, the tournament directors, the spectators, the players, every single one."

While not exactly inseparable, the pair are on speaking terms, although, as Graf points out, they do not exactly work side by side. "I mean, how many times have we seen each other, other than the US Open and the French Open for five minutes. We just never played in the same tournaments. And Monica practises very early. I mean, I'm early, but not that early.

"A few days before a tournament we saw each other in the locker-room, and we did talk. We had a conversation, and it was nice; not a deep conversation, just friendly. She seemed very open, more open than I have known her."

Graf would be pleased to renew their acquaintance on the Centre Court. "It would be great. Any time I play against her it is special. We always have great matches because somehow our games suit each other. Hopefully some day it will happen at Wimbledon."

It would be a pity if Seles's shoulder comes between them, particularly since Graf noticed a marked improvement in her rival's serve when they met at Flushing Meadow. "When she came back last year and we played at the US Open, I really have to say that she got a lot better on the serve. She can change it a little bit, and she serves a little bit harder than before, so I think that will be an advantage on grass. But still I think that if you are coming in, or have a slice, you will feel more comfortable on it."

Seles returns the compliment. "I do think Steffi is serving a lot better than in the past, much stronger." And the general standard of the women's game? "Some players have stayed at the same level, and some have improved. I think you can see that the young players, like Iva Majoli and Martina Hingis, can beat any of the top players."

Some matches may be easier than others, but making up for lost time can be extremely difficult. Asked how close she thought she was to her peak, Seles said: "I don't know, because I really don't remember so much from my past because it's been four years."