Seles relishes belated return

John Roberts looks at the prospects of a former tennis champion recapturing her title when the Australian Open gets under way in Melbourne on Monday
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A few additions have been made to the Australian Open, which starts on Monday, and the Victoria parliament has it in mind to change the name of the splendid setting from Flinders Park to Melbourne Park, accentuating the city rather than an English navigator.

Two new show courts are the latest embellishments, along with fluorescent tennis balls. Some of the female players would like to tell the organisers where to shove them, equal prize-money having been abandoned except in the case of the singles champions. Otherwise the place remains largely as Monica Seles remembers it from her last visit in 1993.

Having suffered a traumatic experience in the meantime, however, Seles could be forgiven for not recollecting a speech made on the court by the Channel 7 announcer, Bruce McAvaney, after she had defeated Steffi Graf, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, to win the title for the third consecutive year. "Well, this might not make much sense to Monica," McAvaney said, "but we used to have a thoroughbred named Phar Lap and he had a very big heart and so does Monica Seles. She turned 21 today: 21 straight victories here at Flinders Park; again the champion." But how was he to know that the analogy he drew between Seles and the folk hero of the antipodean turf would become so frighteningly apt?

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 the chestnut gelding's body after he died mysteriously in California in April 1932, two weeks after winning a race in Mexico.

Three months after Seles left Flinders Park in 1993, the 19-year-old was stabbed in the back by a Graf obsessive, Gunther Parche, during a changeover while playing in Hamburg. She did not make a comeback until July last year, having been out of the game for 27 months.

"When Seles played Graf I had a great view, close up from a little seat next to the court," McAvaney said. "It was one of the best matches I've ever seen. I thought Graf was going to win early. Seles looked as if she was struggling, and she just seemed to show tremendous fortitude. She displayed all the great characteristics of champions, refusing to give in, and Phar Lap came to mind. I'll be pretty careful saying anything this year about her, I can assure you."

Seles - while expressing disappointment that Graf is unable to resume their rivalry, having undergone foot surgery - is delighted to be returning to the place where she won the last of her eight Grand Slam singles titles. "One of the best memories, after the US Open of last year, is of Australia '93," she said. "I love the stadium, I love the court."

She has an unblemished record of three consecutive Australian Open championships, but only just. Her first visit, in 1991, almost ended in defeat in the semi-finals when she was match point down to the American Mary Joe Fernandez at 5-6, 30-40 in the third set. Fernandez netted an attempted winner and Seles edged the match, 6-3, 0-6, 9-7. She went on to become the youngest Australian champion (17 years, one month, 24 days) by defeating Jana Novotna in the final.

Graf withdrew because of illness on the eve of her opening match in 1992, Seles defeating Fernandez in straight sets in the final, but the German won the title for a fourth time in 1994, when counselling had supplanted tennis on Seles's agenda.

A year ago, the fact that the women's singles would be devalued by the absence of both the injured Graf and the rehabilitating Seles was offset to a degree by media preoccupation with Andre Agassi, who finally arrived and made a winning debut at the championships.

The guarantee of a new women's champion, someone who would break the Graf- Seles monopoly which had existed since the tournament moved to the rubberised concrete of Flinders Park from the lawns of Kooyong in 1988, only became a novelty when the victor turned out to be Mary Pierce and not Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the strong favourite.

Pierce, who had been subjected to a difficult upbringing by a father who was disruptive both on and off the court, grasped her opportunity. The tall blonde dominated the final with her potent groundstrokes, defeating Sanchez Vicario in straight sets.

Seles is wary of the situation. "I think Mary Pierce will be very tough because of how well she did last year," she said, perhaps applying the logic that a champion's confidence is replenished on returning to the scene of a triumph.

The fact is that Pierce, who marks her 21st birthday on the opening day of the tournament, has provided scant evidence to suggest that her game has improved since that initial Grand Slam success. At the French Open, where she caused a sensation in 1994 by overwhelming Graf to reach the final, Pierce lost a fourth-round match to Iva Majoli of Croatia in straight sets.

That prompted Pierce's coach, Nick Bollettieri, to send her to the Mayo Clinic to check if her disappointing performances were related to a series of illnesses and injuries which had affected her during the spring (a kidney infection and strains to the shoulder, arm and groin). She passed a rigorous physical examination.

In June, Wimbledon finally caught a glimpse of the Canadian-born, American- raised Frenchwoman, although not much more than that as she fell to a compatriot, Nathalie Tauziat, in the second round. There was further disappointment at the US Open, where Pierce lost to the American Amy Frazier in the third round.

Pierce has spoken of a contradiction between her tennis persona - a mixture of prima donna and nervous wreck - and the way she behaves away from the court. While allowances can be made for her awful experiences as a teenager on the tour, the underlying problem with her play continues to be the hit-or-miss nature of her style.

If, for Seles, 1993 began brilliantly and turned into a nightmare, Pierce can look back on the year with contrasting feelings. It was in 1993 that she finally broke free from the disturbing influence of her father, Jim, who was banned from tournaments. In June that year, while endeavouring to rebuild her career, Pierce visited the French coach, Pierre Barthes, who asked her what she felt she needed to improve. "I don't know how to play," she said. "I don't know why I win. I don't know why I lose."

Some would argue that the dilemma remains, that because there is no margin for error in Pierce's approach, her occasional spectacular performances belie a general lack of consistency.

Time is on her side, of course, and she has not come so far in such trying circumstances without being blessed with resilience. Her mother, Yannick, once said: "She's strong, my daughter. If she wasn't, her rackets already would be in the closet."

Seles is aware that plenty of eager contenders are hoping to ambush her, mentioning in particular Sanchez Vicario, Gabriela Sabatini ("if she's playing really well"), and Conchita Martinez.

Bearing in mind Seles's knee, ankle and viral problems since the US Open, it seems unwise to anticipate a one-horse race. And if she does run away with it, no comparisons, please.