Injured Seles soldiers on

John Roberts on the battle for fitness of a former French Open champion
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The Independent Online
Here at the flinch championships, billed as the French Open, the survival of the fittest gets under way today with the biggest question mark hovering over the well-being of Monica Seles.

With Thomas Muster's right ankle and Pete Sampras's back apparently giving less cause for concern yesterday, the focus was on Seles's injured left shoulder.

Having had her sequence of three consecutive French singles titles interrupted when she was stabbed in the back in Hamburg in April 1993, Seles had at least hoped to return to Paris in good health. Instead she is nursing the shoulder which has restricted her play to one match in four months because of tendinitis and a tear in the lining of the socket.

"We don't know one hundred per cent how it got injured," Seles said, "but I think it is probably from not serving as much at one point in my life and then going back serving a lot of serves.''

Her doctor has told her that she may require surgery, but she hopes to be be able to postpone any decision about that until after the United States Open in September.

Since arriving here after retiring hurt during last week's tournament in Madrid, Seles has had two practice sessions: an hour on Saturday and two hours yesterday morning.

The shoulder is due to be tested more thoroughly today when she plays Caroline Dhenin, a French wild card ranked No 168 in the world; either that or we may discover if there is any the truth in the theory that Seles could win matches in early rounds serving underarm.

Steffi Graf, co-ranked with Seles at No 1, finds herself in the unaccustomed situation of being fit when others are ailing. "It's definitely different from the past," the defending champion said. "I've felt so healthy the last few months that it kind of worries me. It feels good to be able to practise and feel comfortable physically.''

Seles and Graf last met on the clay of Stade Roland Garros in the 1992 final, Seles winning 10-8 in the final set. A fortnight later, Graf defeated Seles in straight sets in the Wimbledon final. The German was also successful in their last encounter, a classic final of the United States Open last year.

"It's been difficult for us to play in the same tournament, because obviously we've both been struggling with injuries," Graf said. "Finally we're both in a tournament, and hopefully we both will do well. I know Monica has been struggling a lot the last few weeks and I hope she will be able to play free. I'll be looking forward to playing her again.''

Yesterday Graf was presented with a golden shoe by Adidas to mark her record total of 334 weeks at No 1. Today Seles is due to make a speech when Court A, which was opened in 1994, is dedicated to the great French champion Suzanne Lenglen.

Although Seles will be the first woman to play on the freshly named Court Lenglen, the honour of first-footing goes to Andre Agassi. The No 3 seed, a finalist in 1990 and 1991, plays his opening match against Jacobo Diaz, a Spanish qualifier ranked No 263.

Given the injury problems of the top seeds, Sampras and Muster, Agassi must be fancying his prospects, although he has hardly distinguished himself on clay courts of late, winning only one match this season, in Monte Carlo.

Muster's rivals, having searched for the Austrian's Achilles heel, may be premature if they read too much into his sprained ankle. "My ankle is quite good," the defending champion said yesterday. "The damage wasn't too bad, there was not too much swelling. I practised yesterday and had almost full movement. And today when I practised I had very little problem.''

His delight on returning to the scene of his greatest triumph was obvious. "I felt great stepping on the court with all the good memories I had last year," he said. "I'm very happy to defend the title and to go out there and play again. I think that's the best you can have."