TORONTO — The most popular player at next week’s US$2-million Rogers Cup women’s tennis tournament won’t even be in the main draw — and that’s good news for the field.
Former world No. 1 Monica Seles will take part in an exhibition doubles match Monday night to kick off the week-long WTA Tour event. The match will coincide with her induction into the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame, a fitting honour for the only player in the modern era to win four straight Canadian titles.
“When I heard that (I was being inducted) into the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame, I right away said, `Yes, I’m coming,”‘ Seles, 35, said Thursday during a conference call. “What an honour for me, and what a great way to finish off my career.”
Seles won 53 WTA Tour titles during her career, including nine Grand Slam championships. But few victories meant as much to Seles as her triumph at the 1995 Canadian Open in Montreal — her first event after being stabbed in the back by a fan during an event in Hamburg, Germany more than two years earlier.
Looking like she hadn’t missed a day, Seles steamrolled through the field, capping an astonishing performance with a 6-1, 6-0 rout of Amanda Coetzer in the final. Seles rode that momentum to a spot in the U.S. Open final two weeks later, where she fell in three sets to rival Steffi Graf.
Seles fondly recalls the positive reaction she received from fans at Uniprix Stadium.
“Walking down those stairs at the old stadium, I was just very nervous,” Seles said. “I didn’t play a match for two-and-a-half years, I didn’t know what lay ahead of me.
“Just walking down to that stadium, the reception that I received, the signs, the pictures and the high-fives going to the matches . . . I said, `You know what? This feels like home. I made the right decision.”‘
Seles went on to win the next three Canadian championships, dropping just one set along the way. Despite falling short in her quest for a fifth championship, losing to Martina Hingis in the 1999 final, Seles still joined Violet Summerhayes (1899-1904) as the only players to win four straight Canadian titles.
“Certain places you just love, and Toronto, for me, was always one of them,” said Seles, who also finished second in 1992. “It always brought out the best tennis in me.”
With her powerful groundstrokes — and audible grunts to match — Seles helped pave the way for a new generation of players that are faster and stronger than their contemporaries. Seles believes the sport has never been healthier.
“The girls are hitting the ball very hard, they’re super fit, mentally they’re very strong (and) they’re very hungry when they step out there,” said Seles. “I really believe that women’s tennis is at a fantastic time right now.”
Seles also said the players have become better at managing their schedules, thereby reducing the likelihood of injury.
“This year has been really good,” said Seles. “Players are much better at planning their schedules so they don’t get injured as often as the last few years.”
Seles saw her own career cut short due to a foot injury that still gives her trouble. But she said nothing would keep her away from Monday’s exhibition, which will also feature Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and Blainville, Que., native Aleksandra Wozniak.
“I really haven’t had a chance to play much because my foot has been hurting me,” said Seles. “But this last three weeks, I went into overdrive knowing I’m going to be playing (with) Serena and Aleks and Martina.
“I’m just as excited as hopefully the fans will be to see such great tennis on Monday night.”