Seles survives her test of time

John Roberts reports from Atlantic City on the tennis comeback of the decade
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The Independent Online
Having conquered her nerves, her apprehensions and the semi-retired Martina Navratilova in straight sets, Monica Seles now knows how much hard work lies ahead if she is to justify her return to the tour sharing the world No 1 ranking with Steffi Graf.

While exhibition matches serve a purpose, there is no substitute for proper tournaments. We were aware of that before Saturday's extravaganza took place at the Convention Center here, and must now guard against rash judgements - one way or the other - concerning the progress of Seles's rehabilitation.

After a hug from Navratilova at the end of her first public contest since being stabbed in the back by the deranged Gunther Parche playing in Hamburg 27 months ago, Seles ran to the side of the court and kissed her agent, Mark McCormack.

"Women's tennis has had its problems, but today was the beginning of a new upsurge," was McCormack's message. "I can't remember in recent years a women's match commanding so much international attention. When you add the spectacular final at Wimbledon, we're at the start of something new."

We trust that he is right, especially since his International Management Group is charged with finding a new sponsor for the women's tour. McCormack's agency, which also numbers Navratilova among its clientele, ensured Seles's comeback had the maximum impact, down to having her dressed by a new clothing and shoe sponsor, Nike, apparently having reached a settlement with Fila, who were believed to have been suing her for $6m (pounds 3.87m).

Rich Rose, head of Caesars World Sport, who staged the event with CBS Television, compared Seles's return with Barbra Streisand making her first stage appearance after an absence of 20 years. But, then, nobody doubted the range of Streisand's voice, and for a while, as Andre Agassi's companion, she was closer to tennis than Seles.

It must be admitted that most aspects of Seles's performance in winning 6-3, 6-2 inspired confidence, though every one of Navratilova's 16 unforced errors was scrutinised in case it came gift-wrapped. That was bound to be the case, simply because of the nature of the event and the public's healthy scepticism.

To counter that, Seles was guilty of 18 unforced errors, including three double-faults in each set, none of which was scripted. But she did produce 27 winners to her opponent's 14, many of them, particularly on the backhand, leaving Navratilova stranded without a hope.

A crowd of 7,257, hoping for a prolongation of the duel, gave the nine- times Wimbledon champion as much encouragement as they could, but there is only so much an athlete can do on 38-year-old legs that have supported more than enough glory for one lifetime.

There were moments, however, when the 21-year-old Seles looked the more weary. This may have been due to the emotional strain of the occasion as much as the physical exertion of the contest, but it was an indication of how much has been taken from Seles in terms of match fitness. Aside from the regular tour events, 10 Grand Slam tournaments have gone by in her absence after she had won five of the previous six, losing to Graf in the 1992 Wimbledon final.

"No matter how much you practise, when you play a match it is very different," she said before leaving her home in Sarasota, Florida, to step back into the spotlight, and Saturday's experience reinforced that view.

Having succeeded in a one-off match played in comfortable indoor conditions, Seles must now step outside and face the comparative grind of winning five matches in a week or seven in a fortnight to add to her imposing list of tournament triumphs.

A large degree of patience is essential, from herself, the public and the media, as she adjusts to the reality of competing with her peers, many of whom may not possess an ounce of her talent but who are match tough and eager to make a big impression.

Among the impressed observers on Saturday was Andrea Jaeger, who, as an early example of so-called "burn-out", knows how difficult it can be to piece together a broken career. Though her case cannot be compared to the trauma of Hamburg, Jaeger added her voice to the warnings that talk of Seles winning the US Open, which starts on 28 August, was "presumptuous".

Seles will prepare for the US Open by playing in Los Angeles next week or Toronto the week after, or both. If she goes to Los Angeles, the tournament director will wonder what he has done to deserve such good fortune. Venus Williams, who was 15 on 17 January, has already chosen to make her first appearance of the year there.

Everybody is eager to accommodate Seles. She has received a special invitation to play in the WTA Tour Championships at Madison Square Garden, New York, in November. She will be given a wild card if she has not enough points to qualify as one of the top 16 singles players.

Her grand entrance on Saturday was a reminder of how much can change in a couple of years. She was taller, heavier, and looked far more mature. Navratilova was right in correcting a television presenter who described Seles as an excited little girl. "She may be excited," Navratilova said, "but she is neither little nor a girl. She's 5ft 11in and she's a woman."

One thing which had not changed, Navratilova emphasised afterwards, was Seles's ability. "I don't see any difference between two and a half years ago and today," she said. "She's right there. It's like she was in a time warp. Mentally, she's always been tough. Emotionally, she handled it great today."

There is one nagging doubt. Seles did not grunt loud enough or often enough. Either she is trying to kick the habit, or the opposition was not enough of a test. We shall find out in due course.