Seles hoping to inspire kids: True tennis talent remembers her roots

She’s one of the top women’s tennis players of all time, with nine Grand Slam titles and more than $13 million in career earnings to her credit. And she’s not done yet.

Currently ranked sixth on the pro tour, her tournament victory total sits at 53, and counting — 53 more wins than Anna Kournikova has managed in her career.

Yet, Monica Seles likely won’t be the star of the show when she and Kournikova hook up for an exhibition match at the Arena in December. All because she’s considered a runner-up in the all-important “good looks” category.

A joke? Of course. Reality? Definitely.


But Seles isn’t losing any sleep over the Anna phenomenon.

“If that’s the way it is, then that’s it,” Seles said from Florida during a conference call with local reporters yesterday. “She’s obviously a huge personality. Everybody’s very excited to see her. I think young guys love to watch her and stuff like that.”

Those same guys probably wouldn’t describe Kournikova using words like “hard-working” and “top player.”

But that’s exactly what Seles proceeded to do.

“I’m good friends with Anna, and I really have a lot of respect for how hard she’s working,” she said. “Different people say different things on it. She wants to become the best player that she can be.

“I think this past year has been difficult for her. She’s coming off a long injury… before that, she was No. 8 in the world. You don’t get to do that just by being pretty. I mean, she’s a top player.”

She couldn’t carry Seles’s ball bag, though.

Ranked 33rd, Kournikova’s best showing at a Grand Slam event was a surprise trip to the Wimbledon semifinal five years ago.

Wimbledon is the only thing missing from Seles’s resume, which includes four Australian Open titles, three French Opens and a pair of U.S. Opens.

At one point, she won seven of eight Slams that she’d entered. But that was back in ’93, the year Seles’s life changed forever.

That April, during a match in Hamburg, Seles was stabbed in the back by a fan who wanted German Steffi Graf to be the top-ranked player in the world.

The physical wounds healed relatively quickly, but Seles was so scarred mentally she was off the Tour for more than two years.

Yesterday, she said she doesn’t think about the attack very often. It was clear she didn’t want to talk about it.

In ’95, Seles made a triumphant return to the court, winning the Canadian Open.

Canada has actually been very good to Seles — she would go on to win four straight Open titles. And she’s looking forward to seeing a part of the country she’s never seen before.

“I always love to come to places that are new,” Seles said. “It’s just going to be great to bring tennis to that area.”

Seles sounds like someone who hasn’t forgotten her roots.

Her childhood home, the former Yugoslavia, wasn’t exactly a tennis hotbed, either. But she became hooked when Bjorn Bjorg and John McEnroe showed up for an exhibition match.

She’s hoping to have a similar effect on kids here.

“I drove with my parents 2 1/2 hours to watch it,” Seles recalled. “And that really inspired me. I got a racket signed by Bjorg and I said, ‘Wow — maybe one day I can be there.’ Hopefully, there’s a little girl or boy that can have that opportunity.”

Seles doesn’t take part in many exhibition matches. She agreed to this one because it takes place just before she leaves for the first Grand Slam event of the season, the Australian Open. All the practice in the world can’t replace playing a match, she says.

And make no mistake — her goal is to steal another Slam from the likes of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, who are dominating the game these days.

“Everyone will have to work very hard if we want to win a Grand Slam right now,” she said.

Come Dec. 15, there will only be one person inside the Arena with a realistic shot.

And her name’s not Anna.