Monica Seles, defying a strong wind, belted the ball across the practice court at the Dubai Open yesterday. It was returned by Andreas Bibek, a tall, blond fellow determined to keep the rally going. When the session ended, Seles made a point of identifying him. "The gentleman who is with me," she said, "is from Hamburg, Germany. He's my hitting partner."
The emphasis on Hamburg, Germany, was deliberate. Seles was fielding the first of many questions ahead of the 10th anniversary of her stabbing there by Guenter Parche on 30 April 1993. Would anything persuade her to play in Germany again, given that the WTA failed to coax her when their year-end championships were held in Munich in 2001? "I don't know," Seles said. "You never say never. People have taken it that I'm against Germany, but I'm not. It's just a country where someone does something like that to me and they never put him in jail [Parche was given a two-year suspended sentence] and I don't feel like going back.
"Maybe down the road it will change. I would love to go back as a tourist, because there are some beautiful places and one of my best friends lives in Munich. But I think it would be hard, because I'm pretty strong on principles."
Parche attacked Seles with a serrated boning knife during a changeover in her match against Magdalena Maleeva because he wanted Steffi Graf to regain the No 1 world ranking. He achieved that and put Seles out of tennis for 27 months. She has not been the same force since, although she was able to win her ninth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 1996.
This evening Seles, the fourth seed, is due to play her opening match here against Francesca Schiavone, an Italian qualifier. With her 30th birthday due in December, Seles has grown accustomed to people wondering if her next match will be her last.
"I think since I was 25 or 26 they've got used to seeing me lose one or two matches a year, and I never got to be as good as I was in the beginning," she said. "I think you get used to being asked about retirement. They've done it with some other players. They did it with Steffi in her last year, they're doing it with Sampras. In tennis it's difficult to try and play a full schedule, because it does take its toll, and I think I'll want a new challenge at some point. Right now I'm pretty happy, but it could stop tomorrow after the tournament, I have no idea."
Seles has seen many of her rivals fade into the background, the latest being her friend Martina Hingis, whose age, 22, is not as tender as her feet. But Seles does not express sorrow for Hingis. "I don't really see it that way," she said. "I think Martina sounds very happy. Whatever she wants to do is all right if she's happy. That's what matters. And it's her decision. She's had a wonderful career and has achieved so much in a very short period of time, and she always gave it her best. And if it makes her happy not to play, then fantastic."
There is no shortage of young blood in the women's game, particularly Russian blood. Dinara Safina, the 16-year-old sister of Marat Safin, coped with the windy conditions yesterday to defeat Rossana Neffa-de Los Rios, of Paraguay, 7-6, 6-3, in the final round of qualifying. Today, in the main draw, Safina will play her close friend and compatriot Anastasia Myskina, who last Sunday defeated Elena Likhovtseva in the first all-Russian final on the WTA Tour.
* Tim Henman returns to action today after 15 weeks out with a shoulder injury. The British No 1 will make his first competitive appearance since October when he takes on Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic in the first round of the International Series event in Rotterdam.