Tennis: Tears for fears take their toll: Guy Hodgson in Berlin on how women's tennis is coping after the Seles stabbing

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The Independent Online
JENNIFER CAPRIATI was looking for a place to weep. In a secluded walkway at the Gottfried Von Cramm Tennis Centre here the hurt of an unexpected defeat poured out of her and on to a shoulder of an official from the Women's Tennis Association. She thought she had found somewhere private; instead her unhappiness was exposed in front of a window. The press reporting the German Open were working behind it.

Tennis puts its participants in a goldfish bowl, and in the women's game the inhabitants are younger and the intrusion greater. Capriati is going through her teens in full view. It epitomised her 17- year-old life that when she needed somewhere to allow her frustration to show, that place would be in public.

'My life is a prison,' Monica Seles said on becoming the world's top woman tennis player in 1991. 'I can't go out of the house without having fans all over me. It's scary sometimes.' That was when her worst nightmares were of a relatively innocuous kind, a free fall in form or a career-wrecking injury. A time two weeks ago, before a maniac in Hamburg plunged a knife into her back.

Capriati, who joined the women's tour at 13, was crying this week for a childhood lost in a search for ranking points and the perfect backhand. But tears were also being shed for a new pressure. Post-Hamburg, every nutter's warning has to be taken seriously. She has experienced unwanted attention; Seles and Steffi Graf have lived with threats for years.

Seles was playing Magdalena Maleeva when she was knifed. Maleeva's mother, Yulia, says there are two ear-piercing screams to be heard on the television soundtrack of the assault. The first was Seles's, the second was her own warning to her youngest daughter. If the man who attacked Seles had extended his range the next back in his sights would have been Magdalena's.

'Everything happened in less than three seconds,' Yulia Maleeva said. 'I heard my middle daughter (Katerina) say, 'He's trying to kill her.' I thought, 'Who? what?' and then I heard the screams. I saw Monica standing, her back to me, and I thought whoever had wanted to kill her had missed. I was looking at her back, there was nothing and suddenly the blood started showing. Then she fainted. I screamed at Maggie to get away from the side.'

If ever mother had reason to question the course she had planned for her offspring it was then. Yulia Maleeva does not just have Magdalena among the world's top 30 women, she has two others, Katerina and Manuela. She has created a Bulgarian dynasty of tennis players; she feels anxiety three times over.

'I'm very happy now that my daughters have not succumbed to the violence,' she said. 'The girls were practising on the outside courts here and some people asked for their autographs. I was relieved to see they reacted normally; they didn't say who are these people, are they carrying a knife? It was a very unfortunate incident but, I believe, it will not happen again.'

Yulia Maleeva was attacked five years ago in Bulgaria and she carries the mental scars. 'The problem for Monica will be psychological not physical,' she said. 'Sometimes I have bad feelings when someone comes too close to me. It can stay within you for years. She was not hurt too badly, thank God, but it will still be an ordeal for her to go on court.'

There are other monsters in tennis, not comparable with knife-wielding psychopaths, but malevolent nevertheless. Pushy parents have crippled their offspring emotionally. Capriati is the sole breadwinner in her family, something not designed to allow her a free arm to thump forehand winners down the line. She says she was not pressured by her parents but no one believes her.

'I'm a typical parent for pushing,' Yulia Maleeva said. 'I am. I confess. It happened gradually. I have a photograph taken in 1976 and Maggie, the youngest one, only a year and a few months old. She's wearing nappies and she's dragging a cut-down racket behind her. I never told them, 'You must play tennis,' but I was teaching other girls and they joined in. They were brought up to be tennis players. They had no choice. But fortunately none has rebelled. They all love what they are doing, they could not live if they were not practising three or four hours a day.'

Which does not give her a rose-coloured view of life on tour. 'It's lonely,' she said. 'If you are good you have the money and the glory but for the mediocre players it is unbearable. That's why so many give up the game.

'Even the top players have sleepless nights over a defeat. You can't bear the feeling. How did you let this happen? Why didn't you play the way you could? There are so many questions you don't know the answer to. Thousands quit at all levels every year.'

At another level a smaller fish in a smaller bowl had not quit this week but she had cried. Monique Javer has not sampled the heights Capriati has scaled but she knows the same fear of falling and, upset by questions about her decline from 61 to 193 in the rankings since last August, she had been upset. 'People think it's a wonderful life,' said Javer, who was representing Britain in the Federation Cup in Nottingham. 'But they don't realise that I check into a hotel, go out to practise, play and go to sleep. You don't have time to go sightseeing.'

Javer began playing when she was nine and she insists it was her choice to continue through tennis college. 'The pleasure you get is from winning,' she insisted. 'There is a lot of pressure and it's difficult at times but it's my choice.'

It might be difficult to sympathise with an American millionairess like Capriati, but when a British player scratching round the foothills of the rankings is reduced to tears you wonder whether her choice was the right one. Please put your daughters on the stage Mrs Worthington.

(Photograph omitted)

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