Victory day for a victim

After 27 months in the twilight zone, Monica Seles makes an emotional return to the court to overwhelm Navratilova
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The Independent Online
WE have lift-off. Monica Seles returned to tennis for the first time in 27 months yesterday, displaying much of her former power and confidence. All that was missing was the full force of her grunting, which we may hear again when she meets foes more formidable than the semi-retired Martina Navratilova, who is 17 years her senior.

Seles required 73 minutes to overwhelm the nine-times Wimbledon champion, 6-3, 6-2, in their exhibition match at the Convention Centre here. Apart from hitting six double faults and missing her first serve too often for comfort, Seles appeared as formidable as the dominating player who won eight Grand Slam titles before being stabbed in the back during a match in Hamburg on 30 April, 1993.

"For a long time I didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel, but hopefully the next few years are going to be a lot better," the 21-year-old Seles said before turning her thoughts to a return to the big-time at next month's United States Open.

Navratilova said she was "thrilled" by Seles's comeback - "she beat me, and I'm no slouch potato" - and confirmed that the passing shots that left her stretching in despair for most of the match "were not a mirage".

The result of the match was less important than Seles's response to playing in front of a crowd for the first time since she was attacked by Gunther Parche, a deranged Steffi Graf supporter. Although the barn-like arena was far from full, 8,000 spectators - many of them taking a break from the casinos - created a noisy atmosphere. Security arrangements were plain to see. Two guards were stationed behind the umpire's chair, and there were full-dress centurions from Caesars, who sponsored the event, standing in the crowd at each corner of the court.

Each player had two chairs, and a table, decorated with flowers, separated them from the first row of spectators. Members of Seles's family, her father, Karolj, mother, Esther, and brother, Zoltan, were seated behind Navratilova's chair. So, too, was Mark McCormack, whose International Management Group acts as agent for both players. He was the first person Seles kissed after securing victory and receiving a hug from her opponent.

Seles looked a picture in a white dress with polka dots and a matching hair band, her outfit and shoes supplied by Nike, which will not go down well with Fila, her former clothing sponsor. Navratilova, also kitted by the people who dress Andre Agassi as a designer tramp, was businesslike in humbug-stripe shorts. Perhaps she was meant to be playing Apollo Creed to Seles's Rocky.

The event was billed as "Return of the Champions", and both players received a rapturous reception, Navratilova being introduced first, leaving Seles to make a dramatic reappearance. At first, she seemed almost overcome, but then smiled and gave a little curtsey. She has gained an inch and a half in height and a few pounds on the midriff.

"I still can't believe I'm actually out here and doing this, it's like a dream," she told the crowd afterwards. "I don't remember a thing after I walked out of the locker room, I was so nervous."

That was obvious when she played the first point, twice plopping the ball into the net to double-fault. Still, somebody remarked, it was her first for 820 days. She double-faulted twice more in the opening set, but allowed Navratilova only three other points off her serve before wrapping it up in 34 minutes.

The Seles backhand, delivered two-handed like the majority of her forehands, was particularly impressive, especially when she picked off her opponent with passing shots down the line. One or two overhead shots went astray, but her general command of the fast carpet court inhibited Navratilova.

Seles broke for the first time in the eighth game, uttering the first suspicion of a grunt when hitting the forehand drive from which Navratilova netted a backhand. A similar shot by Seles caused her opponent to miss a backhand on set point in the next game. Even though the breaks at the changeovers were stretched to up to three minutes to allow for television commercials, Navratilova was unable to revover her composure for the start of the second set. She won only one point before being broken in the opening game, which Seles won with a punishing forehand service return.

Though Navratilova forced three deuces in the sixth game, she was again broken for 2-5, at which point it was merely a question of Seles's holding her nerve to serve out the match. She had to work for it, Navratilova saving two match points and creating two break points before Seles hit a clinching forehand across the court. We now look forward to the real thing.