Wimbledon, England: Surrounded by young players with the attention spans of channel surfers, in the middle of the hard-abs generation, Monica Seles has maintained a concentration and perspective that has left her at peace with her place in the game.
She doesn’t have the mobility of the Williams sisters and isn’t as dedicated to Tae-Bo as Jennifer Capriati, but after a career of nearly 15 years, Seles has resisted the painful fades of her tennis contemporaries.
Resilience was her ally again today. After a sloppy start against Ai Sugiyama, Seles buffed up her ground strokes to finish off a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory. Even though she could hear the emotional eruptions on Wimbledon’s Henman Hill outside her court, where the British were cheering and groaning over every miss or make by their own Tim Henman as they watched his match unfold on a jumbo TV, Seles tunneled in to advance to the fourth round.
It is almost automatic. Out of 36 major appearances, Seles has failed to advance to the Round of 16 only four times. As an ode to her unflappable concentration and a tribute to her unconditional love of tennis, Seles rarely loses to players ranked beneath her. Just how long she will keep this up is unclear. When it comes time, Seles, 28, will just know.
“I don’t want to have that pressure to say, `O.K., I’m going to definitely retire by this certain date or this year,’ ” Seles said. “No need to do that. I’m not a person who is going to have a farewell tour or that stuff. I’m just going to play, and when that point comes that my body is tired or I’m tired mentally, I’ll stop and enjoy life a little bit.
“There is a lot of traveling, a lot of sacrifices in your personal life when you want to be at a high level.”
She has dropped off, but it has not been a dramatic undoing. At times, she has tried to improve her serve and is more of a frequent visitor to the net, but Seles hasn’t tinkered with the core of what works. Today, match point could have been from the file of any victory in her career: after pulling Sugiyama off the court with a two-fisted forehand, she unleashed a grunt and a backhand down the opposite line for a winner.
No fist pump, no showboating. Seles kept her head down, greeted Sugiyama at the net and shyly smiled at the crowd out of appreciation for their support. The fans haven’t deserted her, with each one trying to will her to a last major before she calls her career a day. On grass, that appears unlikely.
“Grass is Seles’s toughest surface,” said Chris Evert, who lost to a 15-year-old Seles in 1989. “Mobility enters into it. Hate to say you’re getting older, but she’s been around since she was 13. She has had 15 years on circuit, and as she gets older, it’s tough to protect herself. The top three players are on a level by themselves.”
True, but as sluggish as her footwork may be, Seles has sidestepped the rush of teens jostling to break into the top 10, planting herself solidly as the fourth-ranked player in the world. Granted, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis have been injured, but Seles is still ahead of the Belgian teens Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
They were about 5 years old when Seles made her debut in 1988, the year Pete Sampras turned pro. But unlike Sampras, and other ragged stars hovering around 30, Seles has aged gracefully and graciously.
Instead of exuding the bitterness of a Yevgeny Kafelnikov and begrudging the young stars’ success, Seles has defied a tennis atmosphere that stunts the growth of its players.
She has matured despite it. She knows what’s important. In 1993, she was stabbed on a changeover by a deranged fan of Steffi Graf’s. Twenty-seven months later, she returned not as a victim, but as a survivor.
“I had nothing to do with that one day; it was beyond my control,” Seles said. “Everything in my life that was in my control, I’m very happy with.”
No period has been particularly easy. A few months after her return from the stabbing, she won her ninth major title, the 1996 Australian Open. But two years later, her father, Karolj Seles, both her friend and coach, died at the end of a long illness.
“She knows tennis is just a game now,” said Billie Jean King, the Fed Cup coach who has been able to count on Seles to support the team. “She’s very clear on that. She’s a wonderful person, very high strung.
“She has her rituals, which most champions do. One of them is hitting against the wall for 10 minutes after each practice. If you have ever seen her hit against wall when she’s 3 feet from it and can smack the ball on either side and everything, it’s amazing. I love watching her do that. I have never seen anybody do that ever in my life. So it’s pretty awesome.”
The process of playing tennis professionally still intrigues Seles. She thinks about strategy, about riding momentum. Today, she had to regain the edge when her game was letting her down against Sugiyama.
“It comes down to one or two points,” Seles said. “I had a good wake-up call after losing that first set. It made me more focused.”
One day, she will grow tired of the mental strain. Unlike Sampras and other peers, she doesn’t seem to fear moving on. As a top 5 player, there is no reason to pack up just yet, but she looks forward to the day when she can let her mind wander without worrying about the consequences on the court.
“I’m going to take a year off and just really have a life,” said Seles, predicting what retirement might be like. “Since I was 7 or 8 years old, I’ve always had a schedule.”
Right now, her next appointment is for another Round of 16 appearance.