Put retirement talk to rest – Seles is far from finished

Monica Seles still has a future in tennis. The retirement vultures have started circling, but that’s not blood they’re smelling. It’s just a little more sweat than usual.

Seles looked overworked in the semifinals of the Bank of the West Classic yesterday. She lost to Lindsay Davenport 6-4, 6-2, and reconfirmed the impression that she can still challenge, but no longer defeat the top players in the sport.

A foot injury kept her off the court for most of the past five months, so the Stanford event was largely a tune-up for her. Seles admitted as much yesterday. She explained that she was playing doubles for the only time this summer, so that she would get plenty of work even if she didn’t last long in the singles draw.

That was a small concession, a tame, predictable admission that she’s not in her prime at the moment. She’s not making the big concession, not saying that she considers stepping aside because she hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since the 1996 Australian Open.

“I really try to stay in the present, and the way my life is going in all aspects,” she said last week when a Reuters reporter put the retirement question to her. “I do what’s expected in order to stay at this level without dwelling on the past or thinking about the future too much.”

She finished 2000 at No. 4 in the world rankings, a spot that Anna Kournikova

must dream of holding. Yet Seles seems like a has-been, an object of wistful sympathy.

She was on top of the world for so long, it’s hard to believe she could accept anything less. She has been so thoroughly thwarted by the Davenports of the world, it’s hard to believe she can ever win a major tournament again. The pool of younger, stronger players is too deep.

But it shouldn’t matter that Davenport and Venus Williams and Martina Hingis seem insurmountable. Seles isn’t Willie Mays at the end, stumbling in the outfield, painful to watch. She isn’t even Jerry Rice, clinging to a sport as his 39th birthday approaches and his greatest years recede from view.

She is only 27, five months from her 28th birthday. I don’t think Rice should walk away if he still loves his job, so I can’t imagine why Seles would.

“Usually, when you’re hurt and you’re out of the game for a while, you start to realize whether . . . you still have that fire,” Davenport said. “Monica came back, so I’m sure that means she’s not ready to give up yet.”

Some people might argue that Seles should stay because a youthful retirement would be a small triumph for the lunatic who stabbed her in Hamburg,

Germany, in 1993, forcing her out of the game for more than two years. I might agree, except I hate thinking his actions could influence her career ever again. I hate thinking of Seles as his victim, to root for her out of pity.

I think she should stick around for the tennis, for whatever she still gets from a well-placed serve or a searing backhand. She should stick around because the game would be poorer if she left. She is idiosyncratic, with her two-fisted forehand and backhand, and fun to watch. And despite appearances from the results of the past five years, she still might win a Grand Slam tournament.

If the idea sounds ridiculous, remember what Jennifer Capriati did this year. Remember what Goran Ivanisevic did at Wimbledon. Their situations are different, particularly because those two are wildly erratic and Seles has been impeccably consistent. But the central theme — that tennis is full of surprises — holds up.

Watching Seles yesterday, I couldn’t help wondering what she could do if she put more emphasis on weight training. With a little more power, she might not have driven so many balls into the net. She might have more stamina.

Seles does lift, but so far she has not achieved the musculature of Davenport, Williams, Capriati or, more recently, Hingis. I have some qualms about making the recommendation, because you never know what dietary supplements, or other funky concoctions, are used to produce bulging biceps these days. Besides, Seles has always been a smart player, a strategist whose rhythm might be undermined by more reps in the weight room.

Before her foot injury, she was soaring. Her No. 4 ranking was her highest since the end of ’96. Given that the field of female stars has gotten thicker over time, she appeared to be ascendant, not trudging toward the end. If Seles is still hungry, the retirement vultures are going to starve.