Seles falls by the wayside

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There have been times at Wimbledon this week when it seemed the words women and surprise might never come in close conjunction again. The impression was wholly wrong. Just when it seemed the top players were sweeping everything out of their path, Monica Seles stumbled, recovered and then fell out of the tournament.

The second seed, winner of nine Grand Slam titles, was beaten 7-5, 5- 7, 6-4 by Katarina Studenikova, a shock underlined by her opponent's lack of pedigree. The Slovakian had visited the All England Club three times before, and on each occasion had been dispatched in the first round. From that background, the world No 59 yesterday shattered what had appeared to be the rigid predictability in the women's game.

Instead of being overawed on No 1 Court, she fought like an alley cat against Seles, who was playing in only her second match at Wimbledon since returning from a four-year absence caused by the lay-off after her stabbing in Hamburg in April 1993. Hitherto she has lost only to Zina Garrison and Steffi Graf at Wimbledon.

Studenikova combined a mixture of guile and power, drawing the strength out of her opponent's shots with sliced backhands and then going for winners with thumping blows on the other wing. Normally it is Seles who hits the corners; this time it was the slender 23-year-old blonde.

The colour of the hair was apposite because Studenikova's play could have been taken straight from a Steffi Graf handbook. "Pretty similar," Seles agreed. "She doesn't have Steffi's serve and I don't think she has the movement. Everything else was pretty much the same. I had chances to close out the third set zillions of times. I was waiting for her to make mistakes that didn't happen. Her tactics were better than mine."

Asked why she kept returning to Studenikova's backhand which was causing her so many problems she replied simply: "Gosh, I wish I knew the answer to that one. I made many errors. I have to learn from them."

Seles defeated Studenikova 6-1, 6-1 on the way to winning the Australian Open in January, but June has been a bad month for a player who admits to a timidity that was not there before her enforced break. In Paris she lost in the quarter-finals and now she has gone out in the second round, her earliest departure from Wimbledon. Her only success was last week's win at Eastbourne, a paltry crumb of comfort.

Not that Seles did not have the chance to extricate herself from the court where she lost to Garrison in 1990. In the first set she squandered five successive games from a 5-3 lead and in the decider she led 2-0 and 4-2 either side of a break for rain. Studenikova continued to go for her shots, however, breaking twice, the second time to 15.

Seles said the interruption had not affected her but it made a difference to Studenikova. "When I lost the second set it was like I couldn't win against a top player," she said. "Then it was the break and I was thinking about it in the dressing-room. I said 'OK, come on. You can win this match.'" She certainly could have.

If Seles' defeat was a huge shock, there were other tremors in the shape of defeats for two seeds - Amanda Coetzer and Irina Spirlea, ranked 14th and 15th in the women's event.

Coetzer, from South Africa, has a nickname, the "Mighty Atom", which probably owes more to her size than to her explosive tennis, although she did reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open and was in the last 16 at Wimbledon two years ago. Yesterday she was split open 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 by the American Meredith McGrath.

Romania's Spirlea had the distinction of being the only seed to drop a set until yesterday but went one better, surrendering 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 to Argentina's Ines Gorro- chategui, although both upsets should be put in the context that neither seed had beaten her opponent before.

The prize for the most one-sided of the day had to go to the Anke Huber's 6-2, 6-1 thrashing of Pam Shriver, which was the sort of contest that would have had boxing spectators baying for the promoter's blood if anyone had the gall to put it on.

The Centre Court crowd is just about the easiest in the world to wring a sentimental tear from but even this lot can recognise ancient hemp when they see it, and although they gave Shriver sympathetic applause at the end there was a definite "goodbye and don't come back" feel to it. We like you, Pam, but not that much.

The American was never the most sprightly thing on two legs even in her prime, but a few days before her 34th birthday she resembled those supertankers that take 20 miles of ocean and half a day to change direction. Huber, the fifth seed, merely had to switch the play from left to right and the point came to an embarrassing halt.

As a finale yesterday, Shriver achieved the equivalent of a golfer swinging and missing on the 18th tee, making a double-fault with a serve that pitched a few feet in front of her and then bounced over the net. "So that's it for me on Centre Court," she said. "A ping-pong serve. I wouldn't have minded hitting another one just to prove I could actually hit one over the net." Shriver said the defeat would probably be her last singles match at Wimbledon. "I'm going to see if I can get up without hitting my head," she said on her way out. Her best shot of the day was saved for herself.