Seles' comeback crucial to women's game

The former world No 1 hits her first ball in anger tonight since her stabbing two years ago. John Roberts reports from Atlantic City
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The Independent Online
Monica Seles's first public appearance after being stabbed in the back by a spectator in Hamburg was at a media conference during the 1993 United States Open. She was asked to demonstrate how far she could stretch her left arm. Before she had time to respond, her agent interjected with a cry of "No!" Seles dutifully kept her arms by her side and said everybody must wait until she first hit a ball.

That time has finally arrived. Today, between 7.20pm and 7.30pm BST, Seles will toss a ball and her left arm will propel her first serve in match play for 27 months. We shall then anticipate the usual blur of two- handed groundstrokes from both wings and wonder if anyone has thought to bring along a "gruntometer".

Seles's return is as crucial to women's tennis as Mike Tyson's comeback is to heavyweight boxing, an activity more commonly associated with the Atlantic City Convention Center, where the former world No 1's exhibition match against Martina Navratilova is about to take place.

The sensational Wimbledon final three weeks ago between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who have dominated the game in Seles's absence, was not representative of the worrying state of women's tennis. Some of the matches played in the earlier rounds were more typical of the WTA Tour, which lacks personalities and rivalries and consequently is experiencing diffi- culty in recruiting a new sponsor.

Graf's chronic bone spur problem in the lower back is causing so much concern that the 26-year-old German is cutting down on her tour schedule. Some obser- vers are even surprised that Graf is still around to accept a renewed challenge from the 21-year-old Seles. The pair will share the world No 1 ranking during the early part of Seles's comeback.

Sanchez Vicario has scurried, retrieved and improved her all-round game impressively. But aside from the one-off triumphs by Conchita Martinez, at Wimbledon, and Mary Pierce, at the Australian Open, there has been little to stir the imagination.

Jennifer Capriati is 19, Seles's age when the attack took place, but little has been seen or heard of the American prodigy since a brief appearance in Philadelphia towards the end of last year, her only tournament since leaving a drugs rehabilitation centre. Two 14-year-olds, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, are in the early stages of development, which is as it should be.

So, fairly or unfairly, Seles is expected to shoulder a responsibility far wider than her own rehabilitation. "No matter how great a sport is, it needs superstars," Navratilova says, wearing her hat as president of the WTA Tour Players' Association. "For example, in basketball, when Michael Jordan quit, he was sorely missed. It was a great boost to the game when Jordan came back. I believe that it is the same with women's tennis, and tennis in general. When Monica got stabbed and couldn't play, we lost our number one star, and that will hurt any sport. To have her back on a part-time or full-time basis, it will be a great boost for tennis."

Navratilova herself is back on a part-time basis, having retired from singles competition shortly after losing to Martinez in last year's Wimbledon final. The 38-year-old recently won her 19th Wimbledon title - the mixed doubles with the American Jonathan Stark - and has been so busy playing World Team Tennis for the New Jersey Stars that she aggravated a groin injury at the start of the week, but continued to play on Thursday and was due on court again against the Idaho Sneakers last night.

Seles has not even been able to practise properly of late because of heavy rain in Florida, and she did not set foot on a carpet court until she arrived at the Convention Center yesterday, indoor facilities not being in great demand where she lives in Sarasota.

Still, the result of today's "Return of the Champions" extravaganza is of less importance than the way Seles deals with her first experience of playing in front of a crowd since she was knifed by Gunther Parche on 30 April, 1993. As far as Seles, her family, and the majority of people in tennis are concerned, Parche, a deranged Graf obsessive, ought to be where Mike Tyson has been, in prison. But he is not. A Hamburg court gave him a two-year suspended sentence, upheld in March this year on appeal.

Seles pronounces herself "nervous, but excited" about her comeback. But will she be tempted to glance over her shoulder when sitting down at every changeover, haunted by memories of the attack? Or will the bitterness which lies beneath the giggles which punctuate her press conferences be transformed into an irresistible motivational force, enabling her to put all thoughts other than winning out of her mind?

"I've missed being in front of the public and hearing, 'Great shot! Wow, what a shot!'," Seles says. "Playing tennis was so suddenly taken away from me. For me, it was an overnight thing. I was in top shape, gamewise, everything, and then suddenly, next day, I'm way on the bottom.

"I can't say I've had too many happy times. It's been very difficult. Emotionally it's been very weird, and I've always been a very strong person on court. I always stand and fight and say, 'I'll win this point, no matter what'. And I always felt safe on a tennis court. That was taken away from me. Once in a while what happened still comes back to me. I think it always will. But the one thing I've been able to do is put it in a box. I can't change what happened. It did happen, I have to accept it and try to move on and be happy."

Single-mindedness on the court was one of Seles's great strengths, the chief reason why she became the youngest ever world No 1 (17 years, three months, nine days) and won eight Grand Slam singles titles.

The last of these was achieved when she recovered after losing the opening set to Graf in the final of the 1993 Australian Open, three months before Parche put her out of the game.

During the presentations, the announcer was moved to liken Seles to Phar Lap, the great-hearted antipodean racehorse. On reflection, the comparison could hardly have been more ironic. Phar Lap (Maori for Red Lightning) was shot at from a moving car days before winning the Melbourne Cup in 1930, and traces of arsenic were found in his body after he died mysteriously in California in April, 1932, two weeks after winning a race in Mexico.

It has been difficult for Seles to see 10 Grand Slam championships pass her by, but her thoughts now are on the United States Open, which starts on 28 August. "I started playing at the end of last year," she said. "Martina was down in Florida, and I played with her. It was so much fun and seeing Martina was so much fun. I kind of missed that feeling. She asked me if I was going to come back to the tour, and I said I didn't know. After she left, I thought a lot about it. Different thoughts were running through my mind. I was thinking that I needed to make a decision."

As always, her father/coach, Karolj, was on hand to hit balls with her whenever she felt like it and to provide practice partners for her when the urge to make a comeback grew stronger. "I had a few different men to hit with me, just doing the same thing I had done beforehand. And, of course, I'm playing Martina, a left-hander. So on Thursday morning, for the first time, I played with a left-hander, which was quite different returning the serve."

There was a plaintive note in Seles's voice when she expressed the hope that her comeback will eventually lead to success at Wimbledon, the one major title to have eluded her. In the circumstances, it seems appropriate that Navratilova, the nine-times Wimbledon singles champion, should be instrumental in leading her back to the court.

Navratilova, remember, brought the grunting controversy to a head by following the example of the French player, Nathalie Tauziat, in protesting to the umpire when Seles last played at the All England Club, in 1992. "It just gets louder and louder," Navratilova said after losing their semi-final, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4. "You cannot hear the ball being hit."

Such matters, the stuff of large headlines and much punditry at the time, appear trivial in retrospect, when serious dramas have unfolded. Navratilova is unlikely to complain, except perhaps light-heartedly, if the Seles decibels rise again in the heat of today's contest.

The smart money is on Seles, who hedged when asked for a prediction. "As a participant it's very hard to say, and as an athlete, also, because I'm a person that always expects so much of myself when I step on the court," she said. "It's going to depend on the day, it's going to depend which one of us is going to adapt to the surface. The last time I played Martina, I lost to her [6-3, 4-6, 7-6, indoors in Paris in February, 1993], so I hope I can do better this time.

"Martina and I, gamewise, are so close that I think it's just going to depend on which one of us has the better day. She's going to come and serve and volley and I'm going to have to serve very well and hit good passing shots. I'm going to attack, as I used to play always, because that's the only game I know." More power to her elbows.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: NAVRATILOVA V SELES*

1989 Dallas carpet F Navratilova 7-6 6-3

1989 New York carpet QF Navratilova 6-3 5-7 7-5

1990 Washington carpet SF Navratilova 6-3 6-0

1990 Italian Open clay F Seles 6-1 6-1

1990 Los Angeles concrete F Seles 6-4 3-6 7-6

1990 California carpet F Seles 6-3 7-6

1991 Palm Springs concrete F Navratilova 6-2 7-6

1991 US Open concrete F Seles 7-6 6-1

1991 Milan carpet F Seles 6-3 3-6 6-4

1991 California carpet F Navratilova 6-3 3-6 6-3

1991 New York carpet F Seles 6-4 3-6 7-5 6-0

1992 Wimbledon grass SF Seles 6-2 6-7 6-4

1992 Los Angeles concrete F Navratilova 6-4 6-2

1992 Oakland carpet F Seles 6-3 6-4

1992 New York carpet F Seles 7-5 6-3 6-1

1993 Chicago carpet F Seles 3-6 6-2 6-1

1993 Paris carpet F Navratilova 6-3 4-6 7-6

*Seles leads 10-7

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