Tennis: Seles plays despite the pain

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The Independent Online
THIRTY years after the start of open tennis, the French Championships, which commence today, are a celebration of youth and ambition. The 22- year-old Chilean Marcelo Rios is fancied to win his first Grand Slam title and the 17-year-old Martina Hingis will endeavour to complete her collection of the four majors, a goal shared by the seasoned Americans Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Of the 256 singles competitors, however, the 24-year-old Monica Seles is likely to be a sympathetic favourite simply by turning up and playing 11 days after the latest trauma in her life, the death of her father, Karolj.

Seles was the epitome of youth and ambition until she was stabbed in the back by a spectator during a changeover while playing in Hamburg in April 1993. Two months later, her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and with gastric malignancy in December 1993. His failing health was a constant worry after Monica returned to the sport in 1995.

Karolj Seles, 64, a former cartoonist and television director, was Monica's coach and confidant and the closeness of their relationship made it difficult for her to concentrate on her tennis during his long illness. The runner- up at the 1995 United States Open, she won the Australian Open in 1996, bringing her number of Grand Slam singles titles to 12, starting at the 1990 French Open at the age of 16.

News of her father's death on 14 May prompted the organisers of the French Open to wonder whether Seles, the No 6 seed, would be inclined to travel for the tournament. The former world No 1 decided that tennis was the best therapy. When contacted, she simply requested the dispensation of a Tuesday start for her first-round match against the Australian Annabel Ellwood, ranked No 136.

Hingis, the youngest-ever world No 1, takes centre stage today against Maria Sanchez Lorenzo, of Spain, ranked No 65, the first of seven hurdles between the Swiss and her fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles title. Only four other women, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court and Maureen Connolly, have achieved the feat. Graf, Court and Connolly are the only ones to have accomplished a traditional Grand Slam i.e. the four titles within a calendar year.

A year ago, Hingis arrived at the French Open to play her first tournament after undergoing a knee operation following a fall from a horse. Her lack of match fitness took a toll in the final, when the Swiss was unable to withstand the inspired form of her Croatian opponent, Iva Majoli.

Majoli, in common with the Brazilan Gustavo Kuerten, last year's surprise men's singles champion, has not won a tournament since lifting the trophy here. So much for success breeding success.

Rod Laver, who completed his second Grand Slam in 1969, when only the French Open was not played on grass, was the last man to win all four major titles. The quest is about to be renewed by Sampras, who opens against his American compatriot Todd Martin today, and the unseeded Agassi, who plays the Dutchman Sjeng Shalken tomorrow and could face Kuerten in the second round.

Rios, who plays the New Zealander Brett Steven this afternoon, was less than convincing after advancing to the Australian Open final in January, the Czech Petr Korda taking advantage and winning his first Grand Slam title at 30. The Chilean was the only man to reach at least the fourth round of all four majors last year, and his clay court form has been superb, with victories at both the Monte Carlo Open and the Italian Open.

British interest today will focus on Court No 3, where Greg Rusedski, the fifth seed, plays the Belgian Johan Van Herck, and Court No 7, where the unseeded Tim Henman opens against the Armenian Sargis Sargsian.

Splendid though it is, Stade Roland Garros is not the favourite playground of British male players, whose record on clay courts hardly inspires confidence. Rusedski and Henman have not played today's opponents before. It will be interesting to see how much has been gained from the spring campaign on the slow surfaces of Europe.

Britons' record of wretchedness on clay


1998 on clay courts

Monte Carlo Open: 1st rd bye, 2nd rd, lost to Boris Becker (Ger) 6-4 3-6 6-3.

Munich: 1st rd, lost to Oliver Gross (Ger) 6-4 6-0.

Hamburg: 1st rd bye, 2nd rd, bt Emilio Alvarez (Sp) 7-6 0-6 6-3, 3rd rd, lost to Goran Ivanisevic (Croa) 6-4 6-2.

Italian Open: 1st rd, lost to Bohdan Ulirach (Cz Rep) 6-2 6-2.

French Open record

1994: 3rd rd, bt Marc-Kevin Goellner (Ger) 7-6 6-3 7-6, Alexander Volkov (Rus) 7-5 6-3 2-6 6-3, lost to Andrei Medvedev (Ukr) (No 4 seed) 2-6 6- 3 6-4 3-6 6-2.

1995: Did not play.

1996: 2nd rd, bt Grant Doyle (Aus) 6-2 1-6 7-5 2-6 7-5, lost to Michael Stich (Ger) (No 15 seed) 6-3 7-5 6-3.

1997: 1st rd, lost to Magnus Norman (Swe) 6-3 6-2 3-6 4-6 9-7.


1998 on clay courts

Monte Carlo Open: 1st rd, lost to Galo Blanco (Sp) 6-2 6-4.

Munich: 1st rd, bt Jens Knippschild (Ger) 6-4 4-6 6-1, 2nd rd, lost to Tomas Nydahl (Swe) 6-3 6-1.

Hamburg: 1st rd, bt Jan Apell (Swe) 6-3 6-2, 2nd rd, lost to Hicham Arazi (Mor) 6-3 6-3.

Italian Open: 1st rd, bt Fabrice Santoro (Fr) 6-1 6-0, 2nd rd, lost to Marcelo Rios (Chile) (No 3 seed) 6-3 6-1.

French Open record

1996: 1st rd, lost to Kris Goossens (Bel) 6-4 6-4 7-5.

1997: 1st rd, lost to OIivier Delaitre (Fr) 6-2 2-6 1-6 6-2 6-4.