Tennis: Majoli still the happy prodigy: Guy Hodgson on the 'new Seles' who is managing to combine fun and games

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The Independent Online
IT IS the reaction to mistakes that you notice when you see Iva Majoli play. She does not crash her racket against the ground or swear. The mask of concentration remains in place. Unmoved.

She will learn, of course. The stakes will grow as she makes her ascent on the top 10 and her name and face become recognised. Errors will mean more than a game won or lost as they take on significance as pointers to the future. But for the moment tennis is still a game and Majoli is enjoying herself as only a player with nothing to lose and everything to gain can.

Last year she rose from 798th to 50th in the world rankings; now she is 43rd and likely to improve on that before Wimbledon after reaching the last 16 in the French Open. She has already acquired the back-bending label of being the new Monica Seles.

Like the phenomenon before her, Majoli's early tennis was played in the former Yugoslavia. At seven she watched her brother and sister, Drago and Nina, practise in Zagreb, and was entranced enough to to join in. Within two years she was playing in junior tournaments and three years after that the management group, IMG, signed her and influenced her family to leave Croatia and join Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida.

Again she was following in famous footsteps. Seles had joined Bollettieri as a junior and, four years older, was winning her first grand slam tournament, the 1990 French Open, as Majoli was introduced to the coaching that has also produced Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. Seles is blonde, so is Majoli. Both thump the ball with an accompanying grunt. Comparisons are inevitable.

'Many people said I looked like Monica and I play like Monica,' Majoli said with the same east-Europe-meets-America accent that Seles has. 'I didn't mind because she is No 1 and she is a great player. But I think it's best if you are yourself. You are your own person and not somebody else.'

What sets Seles apart is her mind, however. Plenty of players can hit fancy backhands in practice; the same shot they will balloon into the crowd at break point. In Rome, Majoli ran into an Italian-Argentine axis in support of her opponent, Ines Gorrochategui, and was overwhemingly the butt of the crowd's partiality. Her mistakes were cheered yet she acted as if they were not there. That treatment would reduce most 15-year-olds to tears; Majoli was overcome only after a third set tie-break.

On Friday, in Paris, she trailed Sabine Hack, the 15th seed, 5-2 in the second set and 5-2 in the tie-break. She recovered for a 6-0, 7-6 victory that is likely to be a milestone. 'I'm young. I'm not afraid of anyone,' she said. This is not a normal teenager; ice runs through her veins.

The 5ft 8in Majoli hits the ball hard. There is not much subtlety but the power batters opponents' strokes into their shells. Hack tried to take the pace out of her returns and concentrated on the prodigy's double-handed backhand but was swept off court.

Majoli meets Steffi Graf today, weather permitting, a happy juxtaposition of a current and potential power. They have played once, at Delray Beach, Florida, when Graf won in straight sets. Two months on and the teenager is more confident and the Wimbledon champion is wearied by the aftermath of the knife attack on Seles. 'I don't know how her practice has been,' Graf said, 'but she is a good baseliner. I think she will play well on clay, she is solid from the back.'

A Majoli press conference is conducted in an excited, glad-to- be-here key that does not have the nervous accompaniment of the woodpecker laugh that Seles had at her age, nor the painful shyness of Graf. It is reminiscent of an early Jennifer Capriati.

'I enjoy being a tennis professional,' Majoli said. 'I think it's great. I have time for my friends as well so I think I have a normal life.' She exudes joie de vivre. Let us hope the learning process leaves that alone.

(Photograph omitted)