While waiting out the monsoon over the Labor Day weekend, Monica Seles did what tennis fans everywhere were doing: she flicked on the television.
Seles was captivated by the two youngsters slugging it out somewhere in the ozone of rerun-land.
“One of the best matches, I think, in women’s tennis,” Seles decided.
She had never seen much of this match, although she had played in it. She was not quite 18, and Jennifer Capriati had just turned 15, and they both turned it on as if there were no tomorrow, which for both of them would almost be the case.
“Fun to see Jennifer and I hit the ball,” Seles said yesterday. “One of the first matches that the ball was hit hard. Now you look, it’s being hit harder.”
She and Capriati are both working on their reborn careers, but the ball goes faster now. Yesterday Seles outlasted a shaky Martina Hingis, 6-4, 6-2, to reach the quarterfinals of the United States Open, against Venus Williams, who hits harder than anybody, except, of course, her sister Serena.
Seles says she can live with the faster game as personified by the Williams sisters. But the tape from 1991 reminded her, most graphically, that she was once the best female player in the world.
On Sept. 6, 1991, in a semifinal at the Open, Seles held on in the third-set tie breaker, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (3). Writing in The New York Times, Robin Finn called the match “a slugfest conducted by a pair of teenagers whose strokes defied age, gender and the legal speed limit.”
In the final, Seles beat Martina Navratilova for her fourth victory in a Grand Slam event. Seles would win four more before a man put a knife between her shoulder blades during a match in Germany in 1993.
“I was playing very well, those two, three years before my stabbing,” Seles said. “You know, I guess, dominating the sport at that stage.”
She said it with a mature smile, not looking for sympathy, just using that ghastly moment as a point of reference for when her world changed.
The fans know the story. They shout, “Come on, Monica!” remembering the goofy teenager with the Woody Woodpecker laugh and the killer backhand. Now she has become a gallant quarterfinalist.
“The game has changed,” she said. “I mean, the game went for a very stagnant period from ’93 to ’96,” when she was recuperating.
“In ’97 the girls started to get bigger, stronger, faster,” Seles added, referring to the year the Williams sisters arrived. “You see the girls now are 6 feet tall, everyone has a 100-mile-per-hour serve — that’s the lowest. It’s changing. It’s so much more even now. Anybody on any given day can beat most of the top players. That’s why it’s so exciting.”
Seles beat Venus Williams in Australia in January, but Hingis, who beat Seles in the semifinals in Australia, said yesterday: “But Venus has gotten better since then. Wasn’t injured or anything. I don’t know. I mean, you can’t compare my game right now to Venus’s.”
Even if that is true, Seles can live with it. She has more trouble with people dropping the retirement question on her.
“Each time I say it, people just roll their eyes,” she said, until the questioner promised he would not roll his eyes.
“O.K.,” Seles said. “I really never played tennis for winning the Grand Slam or to be No. 1 and stuff like that. Maybe it was a very naïve thought to it. Maybe. I don’t know. But truly, it’s not the driving force in me today.
“I love to play tennis. I said it many times. I wish we didn’t have to go out there and win and lose, because that is very tough emotionally. If you win a tournament, next week you have to kind of play again. You never get time to enjoy it.”
She finally got to enjoy that 1991 semifinal on rainy Labor Day 2002. She said, “It was fun to see that, just to see even my dad’s reaction to certain points, which, you know, at that stage during a match you never realize it.”
Her father, Karolj, who taught her to play in a parking lot back home in Yugoslavia, died four years ago, but there he was on Monday, rooting for his daughter.
How good were you on television? somebody asked. “I was very good,” Seles said, almost giggling, eliciting warm laughter.
What about the outfits and the hairstyles of 1991? Seles grunted as loudly as she does on the court. The past is mostly for reruns during rain delays.