Seles Sighting: Monica plays Martina in exhibition

Monica Seles has remained quiet since being sidelined with a chronic foot injury in 2003, but she had a great deal to say on the court when she played an exhibition match at the River Oaks Country Club last week, her first public match in quite some time.

The 33-year-old, who makes her home in the tennis haven of Sarasota, Fla., arrived on the morning of her scheduled match against fellow tennis great and former rival Martina Navratilova. After three practice sessions, the 9-time Slam winner took to the court, her sea foam green and white Yonex clothing hugging a much slimmer figure, highlighted well by her blonde highlights.

Seles’ nervousness was apparent from the start, but as the match progressed, the former World No. 1 showed shades of the player that once dominated the women’s game before her career was cut brutally short. Broken in the ninth game of the first set, she immediately broke back and held at love to consolidate the break on her serve, using the same punishing ground strokes that led her to three French Open crowns.

The contrast of styles – Navratilova’s one-handed serve-and-volley game versus the double-fisted forehand and backhand from the baseline-hugging Seles produced some quality tennis with a bit of humor mixed in for good measure. Seles, although playing an exhibition, appeared to have more than the typical hit-and-giggle mentality, focusing on the match point by point as if rankings points were at stake – she offered only a half-apology for a net cord at one point.

But the rust on court was not confined to the color of the clay, she even forgot to switch sides after six points in the opening set tiebreak.

“I’ll take whatever I can get right now”, she told the crowd after a lucky winner. And take she did, winning the tiebreak and the set.

Navratilova came back in the second set, which took an entertaining turn when a drop shot off Seles’ racquet drew the 50-year-old veteran wide. Navratilova went sailing off the court and nearly into the first row of seats, where she playfully grabbed a spectator’s drink and took a sip. Realizing it was an alcoholic beverage, she quipped, “That is the first and last time I’ll ever do that. Now I’ll have a smile on my face no matter what.”

That proved difficult to live up to, however, because she double faulted on match point to hand Seles the match, 7-6 (1), 2-6, 10-1 (match tiebreak).

Having faced and overcome adversity in her career, spotlighted by the stabbing she suffered at a tournament in Germany in 1993 and the death of her father and mentor later in her career, Seles’ resolve is as much a credit to her as her accomplishments on the court. But off the court, she remains somewhat shy, flashing her unassuming smile when complimented or approached by fans, who packed the stadium to watch her play in dipping temperatures and give a rousing round of applause.

And the feeling was mutual.

“Except for [the groin pull], I am happy with everything, and especially my foot,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “This was a good start and I am looking forward to playing more.”