Monica Seles: the people’s champ

Earlier this week at Australian Open 2001, Channel 7, the host broadcaster, asked the public to pick the winner of the women’s event. The name who topped the tally, with 38% of the vote, was not world No.1 Martina Hingis, defending champion Lindsay Davenport or the any one of the Williams wondergals.

It was Monica Seles, who hasn’t lifted a Grand Slam trophy for five years, hasn’t appeared in a final for nearly three years and is a tennis senior citizen at 27.

But maybe we shouldn’t underestimate the knowledgeable Aussie tennis crowd. Seles moved into a quarterfinal clash with Jennifer Capriati on Sunday after engineering an unlikely 4-6 6-4 6-4 victory over promising Belgian youngster Justine Henin.

The 18-year-old Henin, riding a 13-match winning streak after victories on the Gold Coast and in Canberra, looked set to claim her most prized scalp when she led 6-4 4-2 after 54 brisk minutes.

The velocity on her groundstrokes – a beautifully struck, one-handed backhand in particular – and her athletic net game had Monica in many a vainless pursuit. Yet within the hour, it was Seles, a four-time winner here, who was acknowledging the victory cheers and applauding the supportive crowd.

“I raised my game when I was in desperate trouble,” Monica said. “It really comes down to fighting – it’s one good thing I have in me. She was playing unbelievable at times, it was a very see-saw match. She’ll be top 10 by year’s end, if not better.”

Seles has virtually owned Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park since debuting 10 years ago as a giggling 17-year-old and sweeping through the first of her four titles [1991, 1992, 1993, 1996].

In Monica’s friends group Sunday was Mary Joe Fernandez, loser to Seles here in the 1991 semis and 1992 final. In the former match, Seles was down a matchpoint before making one of her great escapes. Her 1993 three-set victory over archrival Steffi Graf stands as the greatest women’s final played at Melbourne Park.

The 1996 Open saw Monica’s emotional return to the Grand Slam honor board after the horrific on-court stabbing at Hamburg that put her out of the game for 27 months.

Not until the 1999 semifinals, in her fifth Open campaign, did Seles stumble at the Australian Open, when Martina Hingis ended her winning streak at 33. No other player has gone so long before tasting a first defeat in a Grand Slam.

Earlier in the week, Seles was asked if she ever reflected on her awesome record here as she passed her four victory portraits in the corridors at Melbourne Park. “I don’t have time to look back, I’m in a Grand Slam tournament,” Monica replied.

“I don’t have too much time to look around between practice and matches and getting ready for them. I’m sure when I come back here as a retired tennis player to enjoy the tournament and the city, I’ll look at it and remember good memories, without a doubt.”

It’s a vastly different Monica Seles today from the beaming whizkid who first captivated Australians in 1991. Then, she was the fiercest hitter on tour and would turn up to press conferences in floral dresses, hats and pearls. These days, Monica’s on-court uniform owes little to self-expression.

On court, Seles has become a victim of the monster hitting she helped inspire. Who doesn’t take the ball on the rise and whack it with almighty force these days?

In terms of foot speed Monica has not kept pace with the physical revolution in the game. Several times on Sunday, the athletic and match-tough Henin had her scrambling over the court. Monica would reach the first volley, but not the next.

Seles continues to pound some of the biggest groundstrokes in the game but because she’s a half-step slower, her great strengths – taking the ball on the rise and disguising its direction – have been compromised. Monica contrasted the confidence Henin showed in her game with her own lack of sharpness. “My form is probably a low point, and it’s been [there] for a while.”

Still a remarkably consistent performer, Seles ended 2000 at No.4 with a 57-13 record. She was a bronze medallist at the Sydney Olympics and a member of the victorious US Fed Cup team. But her failure to pass the quarterfinals in the Grand Slams is a grave disappointment to a champion who once captured eight of nine Grand Slam finals in a three-year period.

The most telling stat is Monica’s 0-12 combined record against Davenport, Hingis, Pierce and Venus Williams [she did not meet Serena in 2000]. Hingis even humiliated her 6-0 6-0 in the semi-finals at Miami.

The losing pattern has continued into 2001 and Australia, with Hingis victorious in a three-setter in the Hopman Cup final, and Amelie Mauresmo winning their Sydney quarterfinal in two tight sets. Monica made her escape on Sunday but how much longer can she battle both the top group and the upstarts snapping at her?

“The day I stop really enjoying it, I’ll stop,” Monica vowed earlier in the week. “I think the practice and traveling part will probably be the first thing I will not like.

“Travelling is probably the most difficult. Financially I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to do this. Emotionally, I’m fine leaving the sport. As long as I love to play and can compete at a high level, I’ll keep playing.”

But Seles already has one eye on post-tennis future. “I’m looking forward to that life because it will definitely be less stressful than this one.” She knows what she would do if she retired tomorrow. “But that’s so personal, it’s not going to be in the public or in the limelight. I just look forward to living my life as a private citizen.”

Monica’s bio in the media guide says she harbors ambitions to go to college and work with children. If her present funk continues, that other life could be closer than we all think.