Seles not ready to pack it in

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — In the garage of Monica Seles’s Sarasota, Fla., home sit unopened cartons of tennis trophies. There is the 1990 French Open Coupe — the first of her three Roland Garros triumphs — and the 1996 Australian Open prize. That one was special because it was Seles’s first major victory following nearly 2 1/2 years away from the game because of an on-court stabbing in 1993. Neither of her two US Open trophies are anywhere to be seen, either.

Years ago, Seles promised not to open the boxes and decorate her home until her playing career, begun in February 1989 at age 15, was officially over. During the last injury-filled year, Seles, 30, was pretty sure retirement was imminent. She had not played competitively since she lost in the first round of the 2003 French Open to 76th-ranked Nadia Petrova of Russia.

“Sure, I thought about it a lot,” said Seles last night as she prepared to play for the New York Sportimes of World TeamTennis, the summer league founded by Billie Jean King that attracts a mixture of young stars (such as Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova and US Davis Cuppers Mike and Bob Bryan), former greats such as Seles, Martina Navratilova, and Patrick Rafter, and breakthrough-hopefuls such as 2002 NCAA champion Bea Bielik and Anna Kournikova. “It was so frustrating to keep thinking that I would be able to play and then not be able to. There were a lot of lows, but I also realized that even if I can’t play again that I’ve had a great career and hopefully I’ll still be able to play recreationally.”

Seles has spent much of the last year in rehab, including four months with her left foot in a cast, the result of a painful sesamoid bone that required no surgery but plenty of time off. Seles, who has missed the last five majors, said she is finally playing without pain. With World TeamTennis her first competitive play in more than a year, she is planning to make a comeback at the US Open next month in New York. She hopes to play her only warm-up event at the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven the week before the Open.

While she has missed the day-to-day competition and is realistic about returning to world prominence, Seles has spent little time watching her fellow WTA players. She went to Wimbledon once, on a day play was cancelled because of rain. But she is still impressed by Sharapova and Anastasia Myskina, the French Open champ.

“You have to give a lot of credit to the Russians,” said Seles. “For Sharapova to beat Serena [Williams] on her favorite surface [grass] was very impressive.”

Seles looked fit and trim on the court last night, even if her ground strokes, once the most feared in the game, looked jaunty opposite the blistering power of 15-year-old Russian Viktoriya Kutuzova. While the crowd of nearly 2,000 gave her a warm reception, Seles was clearly far from the player who won nine majors and 53 tournaments in her career. Still, the fan-friendly atmosphere of World TeamTennis (spectators are encouraged to cheer between points and on-court promotions involving the players are the norm) brought a smile to Seles’s face. The joy of being back on the court was evident. Those boxes in her garage? Looks like they’ll remain taped shut just a little longer.