Seles set for mind games

The biggest obstacle to US Open victory for the returning world No 1 may be her fitness.
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The Independent Online
BEFORE Monica Seles made her triumphant return to tennis, most people in the game reckoned that the biggest challenge facing her was a mental one - to put behind her the awful events of April 1993.

So resoundingly has she risen to that challenge - with her exhibition match against Martina Navratilova at the end of last month and her destruction of the field in the Canadian Open in Toronto two weeks ago - that it is now possible for one of the people closest to her to predict that only physical problems can stop her winning the US Open, which begins in New York tomorrow.

Betsy Nagelsen would rather you did not assume that it is only marriage to Mark McCormack, head of the International Management Group of which Seles is a client, that is the basis for their friendship. Aged 38, Nagelsen had an 18-year career on the WTA circuit and has known Seles since the young Yugoslav, as she then was, arrived at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida in the late 1980s, where the McCormacks had a home. Since then she has played doubles with her and helped her through the aftermath of the Hamburg stabbing.

"Any Grand Slam event is going to require mental strength, but that's not an area where she is weak," Nagelsen said. "She's like Chris Evert in this respect. They believe in themselves so much. I'm sure inwardly she must be laughing at people. I'm trying to think of a situation in which she might lose, but really I can't see it. A large part of it is how nervous she makes the other players. None of them is going to want to play her."

There is a doubt over Seles's fitness - she is suffering from tendinitis in her left knee as a result of overdoing the training runs - but that will cut little ice with Steffi Graf, who stands to lose most from the radical shake-up that the top of the women's game has just undergone. Graf's back problem, so determinedly ignored during her French Open and Wimbledon triumphs, has not gone away and never will. And the world No 1, a position she now has to hold jointly with Seles, has the added worry of the charges of tax evasion hanging over her father.

If the Canadian Open was mainly notable for the way Seles swept to the title, Graf's first-round defeat at the hands of the unconsidered Amanda Coetzer, of South Africa, was barely less significant. And now Graf must face Coetzer in the first round at Flushing Meadow, while Seles, who starts against Ruxandra Dragomir, of Romania, appears to have a clear run to the quarter-finals, where her opponent is likely to be Jana Novotna.

The US Open is not like other Grand Slams. It is brash and frenetic. Television requires matches to be scheduled late into the night. The wind is often a problem. And when the crowd are not deafening it is only because they are being drowned out by the planes taking off and landing at the nearby La Guardia airport. In other words, the place is made for Andre Agassi.

It was here, a year ago that Agassi began his astonishing rise to the top of the world game, coming in as the No 16 seed after missing the early part of 1994 through injury, and beating Michael Stich in the final. He went on to win the Australian Open at the beginning of this year, taking over the No 1 spot from Pete Sampras in the process, and although both his French Open and his Wimbledon ended in disappointment, he is still the man to beat.

Since Sampras won Wimbledon seven weeks ago, his form has slipped a little, and he will not relish the prospect of a probable second-round match against Jaime Yzaga, of Peru, who knocked him out last year. In his last tournament before the US, in Indianapolis, Sampras lost in the semis to the German Bernd Karbacher, while Agassi was on his way to the New Haven title.

The Indianapolis title was won by Thomas Enqvist, the Swede who was thought worthy of replacing Sergi Bruguera in the draw when the Spaniard withdrew from Wimbledon. And with four titles to his name this year, three on hard courts, he may be a good outside bet. But Agassi remains the likeliest winner, and I take Seles to complete one of the great sporting comebacks by lifting the women's title.

What the losers in Toronto said about Seles

Kimberly Po (first round 6-0, 6-2): "She's hitting pretty well. I literally watched several shots go by. She doesn't hit everything hard but when she decides to her shots are as strong as before. And the interest with her back is good; it's better playing her than being watched by five people and two of them are your parents."

Nathalie Tauziat (second round 6-2, 6-2): "So what that she has been away for two years? It's even tougher to play her now because with all the publicity, everybody is rooting for her. I'd say she is already playing like a top-10 player. I felt like a little lamb being led to the slaughter. She screamed less than she used to."

Anke Huber (quarter-final 6-3, 6-2): "I think we all knew that Seles wouldn't come back unless it was for real. But mentally she was very tough and this is something that no one expected of her. The one thing that wasn't going for me was my first serve. Otherwise I think I played the right game."

Gabriela Sabatini (semi-final 6-1, 6-0): "After two years it's hard to just start playing tournaments again. She's playing like nothing happened. To see Monica back, it feels weird but it's great; it's very emotional for me too. I don't think I played badly against her. She just played very well, close to the level she was at before."

Amanda Coetzer (final 6-0, 6-1): "Monica seemed relaxed all week, but it wasn't like before. Watching her showed that it was very special to her. When I played her, she was better than ever. No one has played that sort of game against me this year. She takes the ball so early, you feel rushed all the time."