Monica Seles, who made one of the bravest comebacks in sporting history after being struck down in her prime by a knife-wielding lunatic, is delighted that two of the women who succeeded her as the world No 1 tennis players are also making a successful resumption of their careers.
Seles, 36, who two years ago retired from the game that brought her international stardom and nine grand slam titles, expects the outstanding Belgian duo of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters to enjoy the kind of appealing rivalry she had with Germany’s Steffi Graf 20 years ago.
That Belgian rivalry was on course for a 25th showdown in the latter stages of the French Open, which begins on Sunday at Roland Garros, until a disappointed Clijsters was forced to withdraw from the second major of the year because of a left foot injury.
Clijsters, who has taken giant strides up the rankings ladder since coming out of retirement last year after giving birth to a daughter, brought the score in the prolonged duel for national bragging rights back to parity at 12-12, winning her last two engagements with Henin in thrilling fashion.
The manner of the two marathon victories – both going to a deciding set tie-break, in a Brisbane final and a Miami semi-final – reminded the public what they had been missing.
Seles was as captivated as anyone by the seamless return of both Belgians to their former high standards.
“Having Kim and Justine back in harness and ready to challenge the Williams sisters and the top Eastern Europeans for the big titles is just what women’s tennis needs at the moment,” said Seles, during a recent visit to Abu Dhabi as an ambassador for the Laureus Sports Awards.
“Tennis needs rivalries,” said Seles, who had expected a stronger one to develop between the Serbian compatriots Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion, and Jelena Jankovic, who rose to No 1 in the world without winning a grand slam.
“You want to see the best players meeting each other and needing a third-set tie-break to separate them,” she said. “That’s when you see the highest level of tennis.
“I think for Kim to have a child and then come back and win her first grand slam after her return [last year’s US Open] was really amazing. Watching her play with such conviction and mental toughness at Flushing Meadows was inspiring to all women, irrespective of whether they have children.
“I think Justine coming back [from a retirement announced two years ago] was also a wonderful development for the game. As soon as she gets back properly into the swing of things she is going to be winning grand slams again.
“That’s why 2010 is as good as it gets for women’s tennis.”
Clijsters’ unfortunate absence from the 128-woman line-up in Paris significantly improves Henin’s chances of triumphing for a fifth time on the red clay of Roland Garros, according to Seles, who completed a tremendous hat-trick there from 1990 to 1992.
“Justine owned the French Open before she retired so you must favour her for Roland Garros,” Seles said. “I can’t wait to see her play again there because the French has always been one of my favourite tournaments.”
She said: “The French is always going to hold a special place for me. That was the grand slam that I watched as a little kid growing up [in Novi Sad, in the former Yugoslavia] and for many years I thought it was the only grand slam.
“When at 16 I ended up winning my first grand slam there, that was very special. I never believed that so early in my career I could win one.”
That victory, she said, gave her enormous self-confidence. She said it made her realise she could play against Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Graf and “maybe I could beat them, too”.
“As a player you tend to look forward to certain tournaments and not be as keen as you approach other events. I always used to look forward to the French.
“I tended to play about 22 tournaments a year. Ten of them I couldn’t wait to get to, five of them I couldn’t care if I never went there and the others I just got on with the job.
“I was really very lucky at Roland Garros because they always cheered for me, even if I was playing [local favourites like] Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce. I always appreciated that. You like to play in places where the crowd enjoy watching you. I think the Paris crowd enjoyed my game. It was the only place at the start of my career where nobody complained abut my grunting on court!”
Seles, is still tormented by the harrowing experience she endured in Hamburg in 1993 when Gunter Parche, an obsessively fanatical supporter of Graf, made his crazed attempt to remove his idol’s biggest threat by thrusting a knife between Seles’s shoulders.
The serious injuries kept Seles off the world circuit for more than two years, but she showed remarkable courage by winning her comeback tournament – the 1995 Canadian Open – and went on to complete her grand slam haul of nine by adding the following year’s Australian Open.
She hopes that hers will be the last such on-court assault.
“I really don’t know how good security is nowadays because I haven’t played for such a long time,” she said.
“After what happened to me I just hope it never happens to anybody else. You want athletes to be comfortable whenever they step into the arena that they are going to perform in, whatever sport it may be.”