Seles seals triumphantcomeback

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The last time Monica Seles had left Centre Court it seemed it was only a matter of time when she would return as champion. She was the best player in the world and only Steffi Graf's advantages on grass had stopped her prevailing at Wimbledon. Surely she would take the women's title next year, or maybe the one after?

She returned yesterday but the near certainty of her becoming a Wimbledon winner had been snatched from her by a madman. Four years had passed since she lost the 1992 final to Graf, an interval caused by a knife attack in Hamburg. The Centre Court was hers yesterday, but the wave of emotion coming down from the dark green seats was relief at her return. The acclaim of a champion has yet to come.

With a slightly embarrassed smile, she waved back mumbled something to her opponent, Ann Grossman, and then proceeded to play like she had never been away. Devastating, powerful, overwhelming: she chased the diminutive American off court 6-1, 6-2 in 49 minutes.

Grossman, ranked 66th in the world, took her first service game to love as Seles, 22, found the range with her howitzer groundstrokes. Then she pummelled the lines and the corners with frightening precision. Towards the end the crowd was cheering hugely every point the loser made; rarely can sympathy have shot over the net from one player to another so quickly.

"It was just like I was walking out there for the first time," Seles, whose only show of nervousness came when she dropped her racket during a serve, said. "The crowd was so responsive and I thought 'wow, this is great' but I had to focus quickly. You cannot take too many chances out there."

Seles' victory was in keeping with the women's seeds' supremacy yesterday. Kimiko Date became the first person through to the second round, walloping her fellow Japanese, Kyoko Nagatsuka, 6-0, 6-2, which seemed cruel until Conchita Martinez, the 1994 champion, made that first result look like an act of mercy with the 6-0, 6-0 rout of the Italian, Silvia Farina.

Indeed only one of the women's seeds suffered the fate of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang and even that was not surprise defeat. Chanda Rubin, the seventh seed, had to pull out of the competition at the last minute because of the wrist injury that also forced her withdrawl at Eastbourne last week.

As for the British women, Sam Smith threatened an upset when she took the first set 6-3 from the Romanian 15th seed, Irina Spirlea. The hope proved short-lived, however, because the 24-year-old from Epping was thrashed 6-1, 6-2 in the remaining two.

So it was left to Banbury's 21-year-old Claire Taylor to carry the Union Jack into the second round, although it would be unwise to break out the bunting just yet as her opponent yesterday was also British, Jo Ward.

The last time Taylor played at Wimbledon, two years ago, she had a match on Centre Court against Martina Navratilova in what was the great champion's valedictory tournament. Yesterday she was tucked away on Court Five and, human nature being the perverse thing it is, found the experience more harrowing.

"I wasn't nervous at all when I played Martina," she said. "I'd been doing dozens of interviews before the match and by the time I got here I was getting bored and wanted to play. Today I expected to win and I felt the pressure."

She hid it well because her serve was only threatened towards the end of her 6-3, 6-2 win. Otherwise her groundstrokes were too powerful - "I've always hit is hard, it's just that the ball goes in now," which is more than could be said for her voice. It is only just recovering from shouting itself hoarse on behalf of England at Wembley on Saturday.

Would she be going again tomorrow? "I don't know, I hope so. It depends on the scheduling of my next match." That, is against the 13th seed, Mary Pierce.