Tennis: Verve and nerve undoes sad Seles

Click to follow
THE saddest sight of the week so far at the Lipton Championships here was of the once great Monica Seles, 24, her fighting spirit intact but her body sagging for the want of fitness, labouring to defeat at the hands of Anna Kournikova, a 16-year-old

picture of vitality.

Kournikova's verve filled the Centre Court again yesterday as she dismantled Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion, 6-3, 6-0, barely breaking stride from one point to the next. That took the 25th-ranked Kournikova into a quarter-final against the second seed, Lindsay Davenport.

Beating Seles, however, was a special event for Kournikova, whose maturing talent, it will be remembered, took her to the Wimbledon semi-finals last year. She squealed with delight after winning, 7-5, 6-4, describing the success as "probably my most

enjoyable victory".

There was no spite in the statement. Quite the contrary. "Monica's always been the player that I admired most," the Americanised Russian explained. "It was my dream to play against her. I feel great that I played against her and that I won, of course. But I just want to say that she's a great athlete and I will always admire her."

One day Kournikova might tell her grandchildren about the time she beat her tennis idol. We trust that she will not gloss over the point that Seles, distraught by her father's illness and out of condition after two months' absence from tournaments, cut an almost matronly figure.

Kournikova expressed compassion. "I feel bad for her, for her dad, for what happened to her [when she was stabbed in 1993]," she said. "I think she was the greatest ever. If nothing had happened to her, I think she would win another 20 Grand Slams, or whatever.

"When I was growing up, she was the young and upcoming player. I remember her playing French Opens against Steffi [Graf], when I was like eight years old or something. I like her game, her very aggressive style. I try to play the same way."

Seles is also trying to play the same way, chiefly from memory, although her thoughts have established a different priority since her father's health deteriorated. She only competed at the Lipton because it is not too far from the family's Florida home. "I'm just going to take it a day at a time," Seles said. "That's what I kind of decided coming into Lipton." Was Wimbledon still part of her schedule? "At this point, I really don't know."

Unsurprisingly, there were few glimpses of Seles's fierce shot-making of old, even when she was dominating the match against Kournikova. "I haven't really worked much on anything the last few months," she said. "I don't have that confidence to finish the match off, which has been happening the past year, since I took my practice hours down. I'm just not serving enough. The timing is not there. I gave away too many easy shots on key points. I left the ball, and let the ball bounce. I had no feeling of whether it was going in or out."

The men's singles continued to produce upsets, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the sixth seed, joining Pete Sampras, the world No 1, on the sidelines. The Russian seemed to be heading for the quarter-finals after taking the opening set of his match yesterday, but when Jeff Tarango is on the other side of the net anything can happen. On this occasion, the turbulent American simply put his game together and prospered, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Dates have been released for the ATP Tour's experiment of having coaches on the court, as in Davis Cup ties. Starting in Hong Kong on 6 April, coaches will be part of the scene in Atlanta, Munich, Gstaad and Los Angeles.

Unlike the Davis Cup, the coaches will only come on court and talk with their players during change-overs after sets. These will be extended from 90 to 120 seconds. Players without a travelling coach will be able to nominate someone else, a doubles partner, say, subject to the approval of the supervisor.

Would players be allowed to use mobile phones to contact their coach if he is unable to attend the event but maybe watching on television? "Nothing in the rules prevents a player phoning up his coach," said Weller Evans, vice-president of ATP Tour player services. But is it good to talk?