Tennis: The scarred heroine with lots of bottle: As the wounds heal, a relaxed Monica Seles prepares to resume normal service - Bud Collins in Florida meets a tennis prodigy eager to reclaim top spot

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The Independent Online
LINUS has his security blanket. The United Nations has its Security Council. And now, Monica Seles sports a security bottle.

Or so it seems, as the once (and future?) world's best tennis player strides from her car, an unremarkable beige station wagon of Japanese make. Approaching the restaurant for this luncheon appointment, she is hugging a one-litre plastic container of Evian like a doll. And she is alone.

As the kid who, unwittingly, made the word 'security' as important in tennis as 'computer', Seles - having faded through nine non-combat months, from No 1 to No 8 - moves confidently around her home base, Sarasota in Florida. She shops, attends movies with friends, but trains and practises in secret.

Is she armed with the large water bottle to cosh possible assailants? 'No, no.' She laughs as though discussing a funky piece of jewellery. 'This is my new accessory. My conditioning coach, Bob Kersee, wants me to drink only bottled water. All the time. Everywhere. And eat only fresh, non-fattening foods. Forget all the heavy meat dishes I grew up on. It's hard, especially when I smell what my mother's cooking for my father and brother. But I'm getting it. McDonald's and I,' she giggles again, 'have parted company.'

But she says she is anxious to resume aggressive company with her rivals on the women's tour. Also wounded by the German madman Gunther Parche in spirit and appeal, the female game has suffered almost as much as Seles.

Soon now 'the day will come when I have to sit in that chair . . . with my back to the crowd . . . and . . . I don't know . . . But I have a pretty strong mind.'

Anybody who has observed Monica Seles tearing opponents apart with both hands on a tennis court, and soar to all- time status with eight major titles in little more than four seasons of professional campaigning, accepts the power of her will. 'Maybe for a minute or two it will - you know - be a little funny. But I'm all right, and I'll be OK when I play.'

The first time she plonks down into a courtside chair since the harrowing stabbing will probably be 18 January in Melbourne as she launches the defence of her Australian title. She has ruled there the past three years. The last time she occupied such a chair was in Hamburg on 30 April and . . . 'It was weird. I still can't believe it happened. Weird.' She repeats the word three times. 'Weird'.

Seles never saw the man who thrust a dagger into her back, sinking it three-and-a-half inches. She had beaten Patricia Tarabini in the first round at Hamburg, and was playing Maggie Maleeva. Then Parche struck. That was it for 1993, during which she had won two titles and posted a 17-2 match record. That last, abbreviated match went into the record as a loss because Seles was unable to continue - the most bizarre and macabre defeat in tennis history.

'But, I can't take it back. It happened. It was such a shock, I don't remember much. Now, from No 1 I'm No 8. Gee, a few people are ahead of me now, but we'll see.'

Ever the woman of mystery - remember Wimbledon '91? - Monica won't yet commit to the Australian, and probably won't say yes or no until a few days before, when the draw is made. Then she may cash in the wild card in her possession.

If she is not ready for Australia, her ranking will decline to No 14. Should she not appear for the succeeding event, Chicago, too, Seles will plummet from the computer altogether. But not into qualifying limbo.

Tournament promoters have understandably demanded of the WTA (Women's Tennis Association) that they be allowed to admit Seles without the burden of qualification, and be allowed to seed her regardless of ranking. A WTA source says: 'It's not quite set but I think it will be.'

But Seles has decided definitely not to play the first tournament of the year (Sydney, 10- 16 January). 'I know it will be tough to start again in a Grand Slam,' she said, 'but I really want to try if I feel 100 per cent. I didn't in 1991 when I missed Wimbledon. I think I'm strong enough again, but I would go to Melbourne with no match play. That would be tough.'

SELES has driven from her inland home, a private condominium settlement, crossed a Sarasota Bay causeway to Longboat Key, a skinny finger of sandy playground on the Gulf of Mexico. It is a bright, flawless afternoon in the 70s, one of those Florida west-coast beach days when several tones of blue come together as a painter would wish.

Feeling that Kersee would approve her decision to try an unusual, ungarnished seafood, Monica is once again a two- fisted attacker, barehandedly wiping out a plate of fresh stone crab claws. She is told this is excellent training for her debut some day against a Channel lobster.

Monica shows up at the seaside patio with her char-coloured brown hair in a ponytail. She wears the fashionable cotton top and long johns in steel blue, and a variegated wool cardigan decorated with white terriers, like her own pet Astro. Instead of a purse she lugs her water bottle.

The occasion is one of ease, much laughter and no wariness in her manner, and although it is clear that she is recognised by other patrons, only one, a woman, intrudes. Monica handles the interruption graciously.

However, a few days before, she had abruptly wept when asked about the stabbing by a television interviewer. 'It was curious,' a friend who was present says. 'Just as the question was asked an ambulance with siren howling went past on the street outside. Monica burst into tears - sort of a Pavlovian reaction. She may still need time.'

Bob Kersee, a US Olympic athletics coach and husband of the gold medallist Jackie Joyner Kersee, is pleased at Seles's physical progress. He said that she is, 'an animal' in his rugged workouts, 'one of the most highly motivated athletes I've ever seen'.

She met Kersee, who has also aided Zina Garrison, in Los Angeles, and asked him to condition her. Three mornings a week she runs and does weight training with him and Jackie. They, in turn, are taking tennis lessons.

'There's some distance running, sprints, cycling and stretching. Bob varies the programme. I don't bench press like Martina. I don't want - you know - bulging muscles. But I've got better muscle tone than ever. Lower body fat. I think I'm much fitter.'

Her older brother, Zoltan, is a hitting partner, along with young local hotshots, during closed afternoon practices directed by her father, Karoly. Informants say she is batting away at full force. 'Yes, I'm hitting as hard as ever.' No woman ever smote a ball with higher velocity. 'But sometimes if I practise serving too long, there's a little ache in my shoulder. I think that'll go away.'

No longer a teenager (her 20th birthday was 2 December), she 'feels for' 17-year-old Jennifer Capriati, who was accused of shoplifting a cheap pinkie ring in nearby Tampa. Capriati is one of the few rivals she keeps in touch with. 'You know Jennifer - rings all over her fingers. I believe her when she says it was a mistake, that she forgot to take one off when she was trying on rings with her friends.

'But it's so hard to grow up in public, to be going through all these normal teenage physical and mental changes but not having any privacy because you're a player.'

She frowns: 'When I was recuperating in Vail, Colorado, there were a lot of stories that I was in a mental hospital for this thing. The other day a German photo crew in a helicopter hung over my practice court. That's too much. I called the police.

'I know what Jennifer's going through,' says Seles, who has grown 'probably an inch' (to 5ft 11in) since last on view. 'If Jennifer feels she needs time away from tennis I know what she means. I hope she takes it.

'You know, this thing' - Seles never calls it a stabbing - 'may have been a blessing, in a way. I mean, I'm not glad it happened. But it gave me time away when I really needed it. At the time I was getting distant from my parents, from everybody. I was tired, feeling closed in. I've been going pretty strong since I was 13.

'In Vail, I did so many new, wonderful things I didn't even know existed. Hiking, canoeing, fishing in the Rockies. I had time for my friends. For movies. To think. I was pretty sure I'd play again, but I knew tennis wasn't everything in life, as it had been. I'd been putting pressure on myself, worrying too much about being No 1, what the press said, all the expectations. That won't happen any more. Now I know how important my family is and the good friends. I think I have better perspective, a more mature look at things.'

Will her travels ever again include Germany? 'Oh yes. You can't be afraid to go places just because of that. But I still can't believe that the German courts did nothing to that guy. He got what he wanted, injuring me and letting Steffi be No 1 again. But . . . no punishment at all?' She rolls her eyes, makes a face. 'That hurts. It hurts, too, that I never got an apology from anyone in the German government - or from the tournament. Can you believe that?'

No practice for her this afternoon so she heads for the movies. 'My favourite has been Mrs Doubtfire with Robin Williams. I rolled on the floor, and it's hard to get me to laugh at a movie. I am reading more. I am halfway through James Joyce's Ulysses. Not sure I understand it. Today I'm going to see Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act II. I like her.'

Whether it be in Australia, or shortly thereafter, Moanin' Monica is just about ready to make whoopie at the expense of her sisterhood. The grunt of this willowy terror will be heard again throughout the land.

(Photographs omitted)