Seles knows what other M.S. is going through

Monica Seles can relate better than anyone to the scrutiny 17-year-old Maria Sharapova has endured through her meteoric rise to today’s Wimbledon singles final against No. 1-seeded Serena Williams.

About 18 years ago, Seles arrived at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy from Yugoslavia with a burning ambition: to become the best in the world.

It took Seles roughly five years to climb the mountaintop. After winning her first Grand Slam championship at 16 at the 1990 French Open, Seles the following year became the youngest No. 1 in history, winning the Australian, French and U.S. Open titles.

As he supervised Seles’ training session Friday with rising juniors Jamea Jackson and Michael Johnson, Gabe Jaramillo, the vice president of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, reflected on the similarities (outside of their initials) between Seles and Sharapova.

“From the time Monica first came here, she had that same belief Maria has,” Jaramillo said. “Monica worked like a champion, acted like a champion, talked like a champion. Anna Kournikova was the same way. They have something inside themselves that can’t be taught.

“Maria is a big fighter. She’s a tiger. She can get behind, and she keeps fighting, keeps hitting. That’s the main difference between her and other kids that age with that kind of ability.”

This morning, scores of aspiring junior champions will gather inside the high-tech room at IMG Academies to see if the lanky Sharapova, who arrived at the NBTA 10 years ago, can knock off Williams, who has also used the academy as a training base.

“I’m going for Maria all the way,” said Jaramillo, who pointed out Sharapova is being coached by the academy’s Mauricio Hadad, a former tour player, and IMG performance specialist Mark Wellington. “Serena comes and goes, but Maria and her parents are family.”

Nine-time Grand Slam champion Seles was asked what it will take for Sharapova to shock the tennis world.

“I think she will figure that one out,” Seles said, smiling.

Seles sees little point in discussing their similarities – “there is not another Maria, just like there is not another Monica,” she said – but appreciates the impact Sharapova’s performance has on academy students, who come from more than 70 countries.

“They see all the hard work she has put in, the desire she has,” Seles said. “Plus, she’s so well put together as a person. She’s a great inspiration for kids to try to emulate.

“It’s unbelievable what she’s done, and she can do something more unbelievable. Everybody who loves tennis is going to be glued to the TV.”

Seles looked fit and trim and says she’s recovered from the foot injury that has sidelined her since her first-round loss at the 2003 French Open. She plans to return to competition Thursday with the New York Sportimes of World TeamTennis for a match against the Delaware Smash in Wilmington.

She may be 30, but Seles’ inner fire burns bright, and her ability to inspire – as attested to by awed juniors Friday morning – remains powerful.