Seles at head of class

By Bud Collins

NEWPORT, R.I. – The tiny face peers at you from the showcase. It is a historic survivor and seems to know it, looking the worse for wear but proud of being beat up by a little girl with a big stick.

Grown to nearly 6 feet, no longer the aggressive – yet ever gracious – adversary, Monica Seles appears at the International Tennis Hall of Fame this afternoon to take her rightful place alongside the game’s immortals.

Rounding out the Hall’s Class of 2009 are the smooth Spanish shotmaker Andres Gimeno and contributors Donald Dell and the late Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson. Their induction precedes semifinals clashes of the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships at The Casino, the lone grass-court stopover on the US pro circuit.

That tiny face in the Seles exhibit is a mouse sketched on a yellow tennis ball by Monica’s father, Karolj, a cartoonist. “He started me in tennis, at 7, and he made it fun for me. If I didn’t have fun there was no sense in playing. The faces on the balls were part of it, like Tom and Jerry. I was the cat giving them whacks.”

And such whacks they were. Battering, double-barreled, powerhouse smacks. Two hands were better than one for Monica, a lefty who slugged like a switch-hitter – both hands going both ways. Few have done it, and none as productively as she, rising to No. 1 as a teenager. By the time she was 18, Monica held seven major singles titles. Nobody else has gone so far so fast.

It took a while to reach the ninth, her last. Shortly after beating Steffi Graf in the 1993 Australian Open final, Monica was felled by the infamous knifing in Hamburg. We didn’t see her again for two years, when she reappeared spectacularly to win the Canadian Open, then lost a tight US Open final to Graf.

She was never quite the same, but an all-time great nonetheless. I thought she would have been the greatest.

Thoughts of the stabbing come and go, she said. “It unfortunately changed my career. When I decided to come back, I had to realize it was out of my control. It was up to me to take control. That’s when I decided to play again and return to the sport I loved. I didn’t want it to be taken away.”

A marvelous memory for me was her first French final, 1990. Graf led, 6-2, in the first set tiebreaker only to be overwhelmed in a 6-point rush as 16-year-old Monica became the greenest champ in Paris, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4. Her majors collection was underway. Though seemingly off balance and out of position, she was perfectly coordinated, moaning and murdering tennis balls just as she had as an elementary schooler. By then, papa’s cartooned faces were retired, out of her destructive reach.